How memes about the Depp-Heard trial can have real consequences

DISCLAIMER: This story contains details about domestic abuse.

If you’re on a major social media platform, you’ve probably noticed it already: tweets, TikTok videos and other posts about the defamation lawsuit involving actors Johnny Depp and Amber Heard, which began in mid-April. and has been a go-to source for viral content ever since.

Depp is suing his ex-wife Heard for US$50 million in a civil litigation in Fairfax County Circuit Court in Virginia, claiming she defamed him in a 2018 op-ed for The Washington Post where she describes herself as a “public figure representing domestic violence”.

The thoroughness of libel litigation, however, has fallen virtually by the wayside in recent weeks when it comes to internet content on the lawsuit. Streamed live online, even now as the jury begins its deliberations, critics say the legal action has become a frivolous source of entertainment.

“It’s a meme-ification of domestic violence,” said Farrah Khan, gender justice advocate and director of Consent Comes First at Metropolitan University of Toronto (formerly Ryerson University).

“We’re seeing this proliferation of misinformation about a domestic violence trial. We’re seeing people see it as entertainment – content creators saying, ‘You know what, this is how I can actually build my brand . “”

On TikTok and Twitter, users are pulling audio and video clips from the trial, in which Depp and Heard talked about the sad details of their marriage, to glorify and vilify either party. Heard, who is counter-suing Depp for US$100 million, has been the target of vicious hate on TikTok in particular, Khan said.

“I’ve seen content creators, especially on TikTok… jump on this trend of using trial audio, using audio specifically where Amber Heard talks about being punched and beaten, where she talks about being raped, to reenact it, to make fun of it and find it sexy,” Khan said.

Heard testified that she was sexually assaulted by Depp on several occasions during their brief marriage. Depp denied the allegations and said Heard was actually the one who physically assaulted him.

“We really need to think about how sexual assault, domestic violence becomes entertainment or is seen as a joke,” Khan said.

Actor Johnny Depp waves to supporters as he leaves the Fairfax County Courthouse on Friday. Jury deliberations began this afternoon. (Craig Hudson/Associated Press)

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 the supposed “strengths” of either party during legal proceedings. Depp fans, for example, can watch every moment that the Pirates of the Caribbean star has a sarcastic exchange with Heard’s attorney.

That online fervor made the trial feel like a football game, said Paula Todd, a lawyer and media professor at Seneca College.

“‘Who do you want to win?’ I get asked about it all the time, “Which side are you on? It’s weird,” Todd said. “I’m not on either side. The idea of ​​a trial is that as much genuine evidence as possible is presented to a jury.”

What is real and what is not?

As the lawsuit has spread like wildfire on social media, the misinformation surrounding it has also spread.

Snopes, the fact-checking website, has refuted several popular conspiracies about Heard: namely that she snorted cocaine from a handkerchief in court and that she tore up 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 hubbub online, particularly from Depp’s camp, according to Vox media.

But there’s probably not as much bot activity as 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 Israel-based tracking company Cyabra indicates that out of 23,000 accounts that were analyzed for engagement in the trial, only 11 percent were bot accounts.

Actor Johnny Depp leaves court on Friday. Lawyers for Depp and Amber Heard presented their closing arguments before a Virginia jury in Depp’s civil lawsuit against his ex-wife. (Craig Hudson/Associated Press)

Ninety-three percent accounts analyzed on Depp’s side, according to NBC News.

“What you really want to watch is say, okay, how much of this is organically pushed and who is doing it?” Bridgman said. “Johnny Depp has this great group of people who feel incredibly passionate about this case.”

So who could be behind this brigade of staunch Depp supporters online? Bridgman said it’s mostly young people who have a lot of free time.

“They are very digitally literate. They have different political positions,” he added. “So it’s very tempting, when we’re consuming a conversation online, to think that it’s somehow representative of society as a whole. push these narratives.”

Brands, celebrities weigh – but to what end?

Some brands, content creators and celebrities could capitalize on the case’s standing in the zeitgeist, according to Celia Lam, a fan engagement expert at the University of Nottingham in Ningbo, China.

“The lawsuit and celebrities are the topic of the day, ‘hot topics’ to use social media parlance,” Lam wrote in an email to CBC News. “Associating with these hot topics brings out an uplift for the individual or the brand.”

Amber Heard leaves the Fairfax County Courthouse on Friday. (Craig Hudson/Associated Press)

Brands like makeup company Milani Cosmetics and language-learning app Duolingo have made headlines for posting information about the trial on social media. Lance Bass, a former member of pop group NSYNC, posted a TikTok of himself reenacting Heard’s testimony, deleting it shortly after. Saturday Night Live ridiculed the lawsuit during a May episode.

And the content creators themselves — especially those who have gained followers online for providing in-depth commentary and detailed proceedings — have benefited from the billions of clicks the lawsuit is garnering.

That’s not to say everyone who engages in the lawsuit does so opportunistically, Lam said. Some may genuinely want to voice their support or just comment on everyday cultural discourse. Others want to weigh in on the social dimension of the trial.

“The reasons are varied, but generally speak to the significance of the event.”

Real-life ramifications

The Depp/Heard trial jury is not sequestered. The judge asked them to refrain from reading the case online, even asking them to turn off their mobile phones for the duration of it.

“The problem with that, of course, is how many jurors do what they’re told?” said Todd, the lawyer.

Dan Kim demonstrates in favor of Amber Heard as supporters of actor Johnny Depp gather outside the Fairfax County Courthouse on Friday. (Craig Hudson/Associated Press)

The case, after all, is hard to avoid online. According to Bridgman, accidental exposure could be one of the reasons people who aren’t otherwise involved in the case are seeing it pop up on their social media feeds. Maybe it’s just to find them.

The essay’s widespread visibility carries much more weight when combined with its online commoditization.

“My focus is on the truth because it killed me that all these people I had met over the years…that these people thought I was an impostor,” Depp said in April.

Heard said during her testimony Thursday that she had received death threats throughout the publicly broadcast court proceedings.

“The harassment and humiliation, the campaign against me that echoes every day on social media, and now in front of the cameras in the showroom – every day I have to relive the trauma.”

Domestic violence jokes and memes have serious real-life consequences, Khan said.

“Jokes become ideas…this idea that you can put people down, control, bully, and punish people. Then it becomes harassment, threats, and verbal abuse. Then it can, too, if people think it’s is okay, it will lead to other things like sexual assault, physical abuse and murder.”

“So I don’t think these are jokes,” she said. “These are lives of real people.”

Support is available for anyone who has been abused or assaulted. You can access crisis lines and local support services through the Canadian Association for the Elimination of Violence Database. The Canadian Women’s Foundation Help signal is a silent one-handed gesture to use during a video call to indicate that you are at risk of violence in the home. If you are in immediate danger or fear for your safety or the safety of those around you, please call 911.