Depp v. Heard and the Court of Public Opinion
Trigger Warning: This article includes mentions of abuse and sexual violence
What began in the public eye later played out under its watchful gaze when celebrity Johnny Depp sued actress Amber Heard in 2019 for statements she had made in an op-ed article for The Washington Post dated December 2018. She had written about sexual violence and domestic abuse from a personal perspective, calling herself a “public figure representing domestic abuse”. In the article, she “spoke up against sexual violence” and stated that she “felt the full force of our culture’s wrath for women who speak out”.
Suing for defamation, Depp’s claim had to demonstrate injury to his reputation and satisfy four requirements:
the statements were false but expressed as if true,
such statements were publicised or communicated to a third party,
a fault or negligence and
damage caused by such statements
Depp’s legal team argued that Heard's writing was “plainly was about” Depp, despite him not being explicitly named. The jury agreed that her statements were defamatory, thus awarding Depp US$ 10 million in compensatory damages and US$5 million in punitive damages (reduced to US$ 350,000 by state law). As far as the judicial system had determined, Heard had written false statements about Depp, and had successfully damaged his reputation with such claims.
Yet the trial had extended outwards from the courtroom into, as Heard had called it in 2018, the “court of public opinion”. The trial owed its popularity to its being televised, in full and for free. Law&Crime Network, who had been broadcasting the trial, saw 23 million viewers stream the verdict, and attested that Depp v. Heard had attracted more viewers than the trial of Derek Chauvin in June 2021 which determined he was guilty of murdering George Floyd. Clips from and discussions about the trial blew up on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and especially Tiktok. As a platform where videos are capped at three minutes, people could supercut and condense the trial - at risk of misrepresenting six weeks of proceedings in a matter of minutes. Such videos in support of Depp, filed the hashtag #JusticeforJohnnyDepp, have accrued over 21 billion views.
Rapidly, a culture of misinformation sprung up with fact-checking website Snopes debunking false information being spread about the case, including that Heard snorted cocaine in the courtroom and that Heard quoted The Talented Mr. Ripley in her testimony, passing them off as her own words. Most people were experiencing the case through social media. As such, at the same time as a jury was presented with evidence, the rest of the world was presented with sensationalist tidbits.
For Heard’s team to prove her statements were not defamatory because they were true, they had to convince the jury that Depp had abused her at least once. The jury, therefore, had to answer the question of whether or not Heard’s statements, that implied Depp abused her, were true. Social media attempted to answer this question on the jury’s behalf: research by Cyabra revealed that 93 percent of Twitter profiles talking about the trial supported Depp, and content creators with neither legal experience nor any professional knowledge of the case pivoted their content towards discussing it, rocketing from a few hundred to multiple millions. Creators on Tiktok, YouTube and Instagram have benefitted from their algorithmic formatting, sending people down a "rabbit hole" of pro-Depp content. News outlets like The Daily Wire invested thousands of dollars into Facebook advertisements that promoted their own articles against Heard. Social media had a bias and it was vehemently in Depp’s favour.
Despite gaining attention in the era of #MeToo, a trial about sexual assault and domestic abuse became fuel for memes and laughs on social media. These issues were trivialised through memes about the trial, including some that mocked Heard’s expressions in court and her lawyer’s cross-examination, amongst other things.
In a symbiotic relationship with the court of public opinion, the case also revolved partly around reputation - Depp’s team claimed Heard was attempting to damage his reputation and propel her own and thus sued Heard whilst Heard’s article and legal defence claimed it was trying to give power to victims of domestic and sexual abuse by removing "fame" from the equation. Heard's op-ed stated that “(she) had the rare vantage point of seeing, in real-time, how institutions protect men accused of abuse”. On the other hand, Depp’s team claimed that Heard’s accusations “devastated” his career and reputation, citing the loss of his movie roles and public disdain, including being dropped as Captain Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.
Both on social media and in real life, this trial attracted a unique type of fanaticism. Fans of Depp camped outside overnight with hopes of being one of the 100 people admitted to the courtroom or just to cheer their idol as he entered it. Online, fans targeted two of Heard’s expert medical witnesses, practising psychiatrists Dr Dawn Hughes and Dr David Spiegel, by flooding their WebMD pages with negative reviews. The trial has attracted a detrimental type of digital vigilantism that undermines the judicial process.
At the conclusion of the trial, general opinion still remains very much in Depp’s favour, as a study by Morning Consult demonstrated that 68 percent of adults surveyed had a favourable opinion of Depp during the trial, although this figure dropped to 56 percent following the verdict. Using social media as a vessel for his popularity, Depp’s statement on Instagram, in which he wrote that “the jury gave me my life back”, is approaching 20 million likes. Heard, in a post-trial interview with NBC that attracted 2.3 million viewers, announced that she plans to appeal the verdict. While the legal system may grant one, the court of public opinion will not.