How memes about the Depp-Heard trial can have real-life consequences
'We're seeing this proliferation of misinformation about a domestic violence trial,' advocate says
WARNING: This story contains details of intimate partner violence.
If you're on a major social media platform, you've probably noticed it by now: tweets, TikTok videos and other posts about the defamation trial involving actors Johnny Depp and Amber Heard, which began in mid-April and has been an inescapable source of viral content since.
Depp is suing his ex-wife Heard for $50 million US in civil litigation in Virginia's Fairfax County Circuit Court, claiming she defamed him in a 2018 op-ed for the Washington Post where she described herself as a "public figure representing domestic violence."
The minutia of libel law litigation, however, has fallen practically to the wayside in recent weeks when it comes to internet content about the trial. Live-streamed online, even now as the jury begins its deliberations, critics say the legal action has devolved into a frivolous source of entertainment.
"It's a meme-ification of domestic violence," said Farrah Khan, a gender justice advocate and the director of Consent Comes First at Toronto Metropolitan University (formerly Ryerson University).
"We're seeing this proliferation of misinformation about a domestic violence trial. We're seeing people see entertainment in it — content creators saying, 'you know what, this is how I actually can build my brand.'"
On TikTok and Twitter, users are pulling audio and video clips from the trial, in which Depp and Heard have spoken about the sad details of their marriage, to glorify and vilify either party. Heard, who is counter suing Depp for $100 million US, has been the target of vicious hate on TikTok in particular, said Khan.
"I've been seeing content creators, specifically on TikTok … jump on this trend of using audio from the trial, using audio specifically where Amber Heard talks about being hit and beaten, where she talks about being raped, re-enacting it, mocking it, finding it sexy," Khan said.
Heard testified that she was sexually assaulted by Depp on multiple occasions during their brief marriage. Depp has denied the allegations and said Heard was in fact the one who physically abused him.
"We have to really think about how sexual assault, domestic violence is becoming entertainment or is seen as a joke," Khan said.
Another curious trend is the use of fancams — a type of montage-style video popularized online by K-pop fans — which play like a reel of either party's supposed "highlights" during court proceedings. Depp's fans, for example, can watch every moment that the Pirates of the Caribbean star has a sarcastic exchange with Heard's lawyer.
That online fervour has given the trial the feeling of a football match, said Paula Todd, a lawyer and media professor at Seneca College.
"'Who do you want to win?' I'm asked all the time about this. 'Whose side are you on?' This is bizarre," Todd said. "I'm not on any one side. The idea of a trial is that as much authentic evidence as possible is put before a jury."
What's real and what isn't?
As the trial has spread like wildfire across social media, so too has misinformation surrounding it.
Snopes, the fact-checking website, has rebutted several popular conspiracies about Heard: namely, that she sniffed cocaine from a tissue in court, and that she ripped part of her testimony from the 1999 film The Talented Mr. Ripley.
There has also been speculation that automated Twitter bots are contributing to the online hubbub, especially from Depp's camp, according to Vox Media.
But there probably isn't as much bot activity some might think, said Aengus Bridgman, director of the Media Ecosystem Observatory at McGill University in Montreal.
"I think in general, bot activity is overstated on things like this," Bridgman said. Research by the Israel-based tracking firm Cyabra indicates that, of 23,000 accounts that were analyzed for their engagement with the trial, only 11 per cent were bot accounts.
Ninety-three per cent of the analyzed accounts sided with Depp, according to NBC News.
"What you want to really look at is say, okay, how much of this is being pushed organically and who's doing it?" Bridgman said. "Johnny Depp does have this large group of people who feel incredibly passionate about this case."
So who might be behind this brigade of fervent Depp supporters online? Bridgman said it's primarily young people who have a lot of time on their hands.
"They are very digitally literate. They have differing political positions," he added. "So it's very tempting when we consume an online conversation, to think it's somehow representative of society at large. But what you're actually capturing is the actions of sort of the top one per cent of users who are deeply engaged and are able to push these narratives."
Brands, celebs weighing in — but to what end?
Some brands, content creators and celebrities might be capitalizing on the case's position in the zeitgeist, according to Celia Lam, an expert on fan engagement at the University of Nottingham in Ningbo, China.
"The trial and celebrities are the topic of the day, 'hot topics' to use social media parlance," Lam wrote in an email to CBC News. "Association with these hot topics brings out an elevation for the individual or the brand."
Brands like makeup company Milani Cosmetics and language-learning app Duolingo made headlines for posting about the trial on social media. Lance Bass, a former member of the pop group NSYNC, posted a TikTok of himself re-enacting Heard's testimony, deleting it shortly after. Saturday Night Live lampooned the trial during a May episode.
And content creators themselves — especially those who've gained followings online for providing in-depth commentary and play-by-play of the proceedings — have benefited from the billions of clicks that the trial elicits.
That isn't to say that everyone who engages with the trial is doing so opportunistically, Lam said. Some may genuinely want to express support, or are just commenting on everyday cultural discourse. Others want to weigh in on the trial's social dimension.
"The reasons are varied, but generally speak to the significance of the event."
The jury for the Depp/Heard trial isn't sequestered. The judge has asked them to refrain from reading about the case online, even instructing them to turn off their cell phones for its duration.
"The problem with that, of course, is how many jurors do what they're told?" said Todd, the lawyer.
The case, after all, is hard to avoid online. Incidental exposure might be one explanation why people not otherwise engaged with the case are seeing it pop up on their social media feeds, according to Bridgman. It just might be finding them.
The trial's widespread visibility has far greater weight when combined with its online trivialization.
"My goal is the truth because it killed me that all these people I had met over the years ... that these people would think that I was a fraud," Depp testified in April.
Heard said during her testimony on Thursday that she has received death threats throughout the publicly broadcast court proceedings.
"The harassment and the humiliation, the campaign against me that's echoed every single day on social media, and now in front of cameras in the showroom — every single day I have to relive the trauma."
Jokes and memes about domestic abuse have serious real-life consequences, said Khan.
"Jokes become ideas ... this idea that you can demean, police, persecute and punish people. Then it becomes harassment, threats and verbal abuse. Then it can also, if people think that's okay, then it'll lead to other things like sexual assault, physical violence and murder."
"So I don't think these are jokes," she said. "These are real people's lives."
Support is available for anyone who has been abused or assaulted. You can access crisis lines and local support services through the Ending Violence Association of Canada database. The Canadian Women's Foundation's Signal For Help is a silent, one-handed gesture to use in a video call to indicate that you are at risk of violence at home. If you're in immediate danger or fear for your safety or that of others around you, please call 911.
With files from Teghan Beaudette, Eli Glasner and The Associated Press