This column first appeared in Malta Today
As I am writing this, the jury has started deliberating their verdict in the Johnny Depp/Amber Heard defamation trial .
I had stopped following the live stream of this trial almost immediately because it was clear how messy and ugly things were going get. It was not, however, that easy to get away from the story completely because it has popped up persistently on my newsfeed for weeks.
To sum up what it is all about, Depp sued Heard for $50 million over a Washington Post op-ed in which she described herself as “a public figure representing domestic abuse,”. He claimed that it was clear she was referring to him and had caused him to lose work. On her part, Heard has countersued for $100 million for defamation after Depp’s lawyers called her allegations false. The jury will have to focus not only on whether there was abuse but also whether Heard’s article can be considered legally defamatory.
In more than 100 hours of testimony spanning a period of over six weeks, lurid accounts of the couple’s turbulent relationship emerged, and social media firmly divided itself into two camps of whom they believed. But the highly personal details were too much for me and while their celebrity makes them public figures, I find it disturbing that every juicy piece of testimony revealed in Court is there in cyber space forever, for the public to dissect and discuss. I don’t understand why this private matter was being televised in the first place because, unlike, say the OJ Simpson trial, which involved a murder and was in the public interest, a defamation case is not.
However, different US states have their own rules about cameras being allowed in the courtroom, and in this case, which is being heard in Virginia, live streaming is allowed.
Some might argue that the crucial issue of possible domestic violence within this relationship (either by one of them or by both of them) is enough reason to broadcast live each day from the courtroom. But is it really? What have we gained from everything we have heard? Live streaming in a case like this only opens the floodgates for everyone to become judge and jury. When I skim through the comments all I read are often hysterical reactions of people who are entrenched on which ‘side’ they are on. Some blame Depp for being the ‘typical’ male abuser who gaslights women, and has turned everyone against Heard, portraying her as psychotic and crazy. Others point fingers at Heard for being the ‘typical’ woman who is crying wolf, playing the victim, and trying to destroy a man’s career, when it is she who is at fault.
There have been so many accusations and counter accusations, with other celebrities dragged into the fray as witnesses, as well as private text messages and video and audio evidence, that the jury will have a hard time untangling the truth from the lies. Was this one of those dysfunctional, toxic relationships, fuelled by drugs and alcohol, in which two people simply brought out the worst in each other, like a real life rendition of the warring couple in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Famously played by another notoriously warring couple in real life Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton).
Is Amber Heard the true victim but is not being believed because of Johnny Depp’s loyal fan base who will not hear a word against “their favourite pirate” (with reference to his starring role as the rakishly charming Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean). In that case, this trial will make it even more difficult for domestic violence victims to come forward. Or is Johnny Depp the real victim, and his name has been dragged through the mud because a woman who accuses a man of violence in the #metoo era is more quickly believed…even if it is not true?
Those who have followed the whole trial diligently are vociferous in their opinion about who the ‘bad guy’ is in all this. However, it is the torrent of sheer online abuse towards these two people which I cannot wrap my head around. So you think one of them is telling he truth and the other one is lying? Fine.
But to read such comments as, “he could have killed you, he had every right” leaves me speechless.
In researching this article, what has stood out clearly is that there has been more social media hate and mockery directed against Amber Heard than against Johnny Depp. Some of it has to do with his wide network of fans, but some of it is directly due to bloggers, vloggers and influencers jumping on what is trending to create related content in order to get more likes and clicks. The more people took a dislike to Amber or decided she was lying the more the hashtag #AmberHeardisapsychopath continued to trend.
In her final comments from the witness stand on Thursday, Heard said she is scared for her life after receiving multiple death threats. “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,” Heard said in court as she fought back tears. “Perhaps it’s easy to forget I’m a human being.”
There is something frighteningly chilling about social media in these cases where certain types lash out in a frenzy against their target. What I have found most unsavoury are those who turned audio snippets from the trial into Tiktok videos, filming themselves re-enacting scenes as Heard or Depp’s voices are played. I don’t find anything amusing or clever about such stunts when the issue is domestic violence, but this is the downside of Court testimony being so easily accessible to people who clearly have too much time on their hands.
Let us set aside the fact that even famous people are human beings, the trickle down effect this will have is very real. The temptation to mock anyone on social media who says they have been abused (whether they are a man or a woman) has become even more likely now. It has become fodder for memes and parody, so let’s just have some fun with it, who cares, right?
As one analyst, Aja Romano, acutely observed, “the actual substance of the testimony seems completely irrelevant beside the need to mine the proceedings for entertainment. Sure, Amber Heard cried while on the stand, but did you see how ridiculous she looked while doing it?”
In a biting satirical sketch about the trial on Saturday Night Live the Judge says, “I’ll allow the footage, as it does sound fun, and this trial is for fun.” When Heard’s lawyer objects, the Judge overrules , “I want to see more of this video…because it’s funny!”
Even innocuous comments have become material for TikTok users. When Amber Heard mentioned things which happened after one fight she said: “My dog stepped on a bee.” She then turned her head and made a pained expression.
TikTok pounced on it with everyone making up their own rhymes, like “I lost my house key” or “my Dad has to pee” and cruelly imitating her expression. It’s all a bit of harmless fun you might say, but when you get rhymes like “Jimmy Saville shagged me” amassing millions of views you have to start to wonder whether Tiktok videos are going to finally strip away what is left of our humanity and empathy.
One “influencer” from Malaysia 25-year-old Alina Selina, first went viral using the “Johnny you hit me” audio, gaining 8.1 million views and 1.6 million likes. She’s good I have to admit, lip synching perfectly and using well-timed facial expressions and hand gestures. The more attention she got, the more videos she made, mostly intended to ridicule Amber Heard. “Ok, this is fun” she is quoted as saying.
But as people laugh and try to outdo each other with their creative takes on this highly publicised trial you know who isn’t finding any of this hilarious? Domestic violence survivors, that’s who.