June 21, 2024


Technological development

Why Johnny Depp vs. Amber Heard Dominated the Internet


What’s happening

Social media has been flooded with videos from the domestic abuse and defamation trial between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard, whose marriage fell apart in 2016.

Why it matters

People on TikTok and YouTube turned this case into one of the most popular topics on the internet.

What it means for you

While views and comments climb, critics say the internet pile-on may lead people to take abuse allegations less seriously.

Marc Musso has a habit of writing a silly song about whatever he’s doing. Sometimes it’s about feeding his cat Malmo, other times it’s about playing board games.

So it’s probably no surprise that as the 27-year-old Texan was watching a live feed of the defamation trial between actor Johnny Depp and actress Amber Heard, he found himself writing a song about the divorced couple.

Sung from the perspective of Heard’s lawyers, Musso’s song pokes fun at how often they raised objections to Depp’s comments while on the stand.

“I used to be respected. People took me at my word,” he starts singing with pop-music beats in the background. “Then I became a lawyer representing Amber Heard.”

Indeed, the weeks-long drama that was the trial between two Hollywood stars became one of the most popular topics on the internet. In between images of Russia’s war on Ukraine, US mass shootings and abortion-rights rallies, it was video snippets coming from a static, dark wood-paneled courtroom in Fairfax, Virginia, that went viral. 

On Wednesday, a jury found both Depp and Heard liable for defamation, with Heard taking the bigger hit. The jury awarded Depp $10 million in compensatory damages and $5 million in punitive damages, though the judge reduced the punitive damages to $350,000, which is the cap in Virginia. Heard was awarded $2 million in compensatory damages and no punitive damages.

The case began as a reaction to an opinion piece Heard published in 2018 in The Washington Post amid the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment, discrimination and assault. Her piece, which discussed domestic abuse she’d experienced, did not name Depp. But Depp sued her in 2019, alleging that Heard defamed him and that she had been the abuser. The next year, Heard countersued Depp.

Then they were in court, with a camera live feed streaming free to the internet from their proceedings in Virginia, and millions tuned in. Some people watched because it was entertaining. Others cheered on their preferred side. Before the trial’s conclusion this week, Saturday Night Live lampooned the case as a spectacle being put on “for fun.” In reaction, critics have said they’re disgusted by how callously audiences treated the case. 

But that didn’t stop people from sharing links, watching videos by the millions and tumbling further down the rabbit hole, remixing trial footage into their own brand of parody. 

That included Musso, who didn’t initially plan to post his 87-second tune to the internet, until his girlfriend convinced him to put it on YouTube and then on TikTok. Less than two weeks later, his song has racked up more than 15 million views.

Musso thought the trial “was ridiculous, and most people seem to agree,” he said. After all, to him it’s just one rich person suing another rich person while airing out their drama to the public.

@thetruegadfly#johnnydepp#johnny#johnnydepptrial#amberheard#objectionhearsay♬ original sound – Gadfly

Social media jury

Search for Depp or Heard on YouTube or TikTok, and most of what you’ll find are short clips from the trial with tabloid-worthy headlines like Johnny Depp Destroys Amber Heard’s Lawyer (13 million views) or one drawn from a now famous quote from Heard’s testimony, “I did not punch you, I was hitting you” (29 million views). The people who run these accounts say they uploaded the clips, which run to several minutes in length, to draw attention to a detail they believed was important that might otherwise get overlooked. 

Critics, meanwhile, worried that the attention had turned from mocking celebrities to encouraging harassment of abuse victims. That particularly became clear after Saturday Night Live lampooned the trial in a May 14 skit, reducing Depp’s and Heard’s arguments over domestic abuse to, as SNL said, a “news story we can all collectively watch and say, ‘Glad it ain’t me?'”

“Domestic violence is not a joke,” sex and culture critic Ella Dawson tweeted in a viral thread a few hours after the skit was aired. “In twenty years people are going to look back at this trial and all of the media coverage and be disgusted. Some of us are already disgusted.”

Despite the criticism, SNL’s video pulled in more than 4 million views in the first day after it was posted, more than any other video the show’s posted in the past month, and was the top trending video on YouTube. Other accounts across YouTube and TikTok saw similar success, racking up views along with torrents of new followers. Some made money off it, too.

Creators noticed the growing interest in the trial. Eventually, they started to post videos because they’re longtime Depp fans from his days as Jack Sparrow in the multibillion-dollar Pirates of the Caribbean movies, or perhaps his more recent run as the villain Gellert Grindelwald in the Harry Potter prequel series, Fantastic Beasts — a role he lost amid the controversy surrounding the couple’s split.

Haider Ali said he saw himself in Depp and Heard’s explosive marriage, which began in 2015 and ended just over a year later. Heard filed for divorce and obtained a temporary restraining order. Ali, a 27-year-old digital artist and web developer, said he’d been a victim of domestic violence and believed sharing clips from the trial on YouTube might help other people who’ve been in that situation.

“I posted a few videos and they didn’t do so well, and I sat down and wondered, Why am I posting these videos?” Then his third video hit more than 2 million views. And a day later, another hit 2.6 million views. Within the week, his channel had shifted from his self-styled singer-songwriter roots, which saw him playing rock performances on his electric guitar, to several-minute-long videos from the trial.

Johnny Depp in a suit, removing his sunglasses.

Johnny Depp in a Virginia courtroom during his defamation trial against ex-wife Amber Heard.

Getty Images

One of his most popular so far, with more than 2.6 million views, shows Depp and Heard on screen, overlaid with laughing emoji, and the title Witness Dr. Dawn Hughes Doesn’t Remember Anything.

Ali said he incorporates emoji with dramatic titles like Johnny Depp’s Lawyer Ben Chew Blasts Amber Heard because that’s the culture of the internet sites he grew up with, like Twitter, Tumblr and MySpace. “I’m trying to mask the negativity with fun stuff,” he said.

Alice Parkes took it a step further. She created animations to play over audio from the actual trial, lampooning everyone involved. Her most popular video so far portrayed Heard doodling while Depp’s on the stand, until he accuses Heard or one of her friends of defecating in the couple’s bed, at which point she’s sweating and visibly uncomfortable.

“I was thinking, ‘the absurdity of the whole trial would just look so funny animated,'” Parkes said. The 28-year-old professional illustrator based in Wales had about 50 followers on her TikTok account, @pettyparrot, before her first video went viral with more than 12.7 million views. Three more hit videos later, she’s got about 108,000 followers and joined the TikTok Creator Fund that pays her for video views.

“I could do this and, you know, possibly make money off it, which would be nice,” she said.

@pettyparrot I shouldn’t have access to animation software. 💩 #johnnydepp#amberheard#justiceforjohnnydepp#amberturd#fypシ♬ original sound – Alice

Way past O.J.

Courtroom dramas have long been a pillar of American pop culture. TV shows like NBC’s Law & Order have been on the air longer than many popular TikTokers have been alive. Key moments in US history, like the Salem witch trials, are taught in school. The Watergate hearings on Capitol Hill ahead of President Richard Nixon’s resignation from office in 1974 changed American politics so much that nearly any major controversy winds up with a nickname that includes a “-gate” affixed to the end.

Over the past 30 years though, cable TV and, eventually, internet streaming have offered people a chance to watch every moment of a high-profile case. All the attention changes the way we look at these court proceedings as well. Often, the most-watched ones are called “trials of the century.”

“With big trials like this, you get these rare opportunities where practically everybody does at least have a little bit of a passing knowledge of what’s going on,” said Robert Thompson, founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University.

Millions of people across the country were glued to their TVs watching football star O.J. Simpson’s murder trial in 1995, pop star Michael Jackson‘s molestation trial in 2005 or even the heartbreaking case surrounding the death of 2-year-old Caylee Anthony in 2011. And in each of the major cases often cited as pop culture phenomena, the drama from the courtroom became as much a topic of fascination as the circumstances of the case.

Though Depp v. Heard didn’t have the same stakes as a criminal trial, or the political importance of a presidential impeachment, it did have a dramatic storyline filled with bizarre characters and salacious details.

And it had social media.

“With the O.J. trial, you could turn it off,” said Paul Booth, a professor of media at DePaul University in Chicago. “You could not watch it. You could not read the newspaper.” 

But computer programs running our social feeds on Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and TikTok kept feeding Depp v. Heard to us because even if we weren’t interested, our friends probably were.

And the rabbit holes that social media creates can change our perspectives as well. The social feeds may start showing you only pro-Depp videos and posts, because that’s what the apps think you’ll want. And, Booth added, TikTok’s short-video format makes it even harder to find nuance beyond the hero-or-villain narratives people often slot into.

“Where it becomes bad or where it becomes problematic,” he said, “is when you lose that kind of critical focus on it and you start thinking that the rabbit hole you’ve gone down is the whole world, and you lose perspective on everything else.”

The political-type online mudslinging between Depp fans and Heard defenders didn’t just made it tough for an internet passerby to quickly understand what’s going on. It’s made the job harder for people like longtime trial consultant and psychologist Amy Singer, too. She’s often brought in to consult on high-stakes cases, including the Casey Anthony criminal trial and Michael Jackson’s civil trial. 

Singer wasn’t consulting for Depp or Heard, but she was watching. Singer’s team has a set of social media listening tools that deduce what jurors might be thinking by following social media posts of people with similar demographics and backgrounds. What she found wasn’t the typical policy debate we hear during an emotional murder case, or the cultural conversations we usually have around child abuse during molestation trials. 

Instead, Singer’s team detected rifts between the two movie stars’ fandoms.

“It’s more like a political debate,” she said, referring to the trial as a “pig v. pig” case, where “who gives a damn who wins?”

If you weren’t being bombarded by Depp v. Heard videos, by the way, Singer’s social media listening tools indicate you’re probably older. While the court case was blowing up across YouTube and TikTok, where viewers tend to skew younger, the “adult population” she tracks on Facebook and Twitter were more worried about the Ukraine war and inflation. 

“They’re not talking about Amber Heard. ‘Amber who?'” Singer said.

Amber Heard in the background of a courtroom, Johnny Depp in foreground.

Some online videos track the little moments when Johnny Depp and Amber Heard seem to interact in the courtroom.

Getty Images

Making dollars

Lahiru Darsha started posting videos about Depp v. Heard when he felt like the trial wasn’t going the Pirates of the Caribbean star’s way. Soon, Darsha was posting short video snippets — less than 2 minutes — on his YouTube channel, Redux Dreams Lab.

Before the trial, the 25-year-old’s channel mostly had videos of his streaming gameplay from the hit crime drama game Grand Theft Auto. The game had helped him learn English, and the videos made him about $100 in ad revenue every few months while he was in school earning a cybersecurity degree.

But his Depp videos took off, garnering millions of views within days of being uploaded. The 35-second Johnny Depp’s Bodyguard Being Hilarious rang up 1.3 million views, Johnny Depp Trying to Resist Laughter, uploaded the same day, attracted nearly 4 million views. By the end of his first day uploading, he’d made $3,700.

“I wanted to draw attention to specific points that might be missed from the livestreams,” he said. And the thrill of finding an audience — most of whom were positive to him — inspired Darsha to upload even more clips.

He’s made more than $11,000 since the trial began, and plans to use the money either to help build a home in Sri Lanka, where he lives, or study abroad in Europe. He also intends to pay back family who’ve supported him through school.

Several days into May, Darsha noticed his YouTube earnings had dropped. He then heard rumors that YouTube moderators were penalizing accounts that posted snippets from the trial, so decided to hide those videos. After this story’s publication, YouTube further reduced his earnings by several thousand dollars. YouTube didn’t respond to several requests for comment for this story.

Making sense

Amid the courtroom snippets pulled from the live feed, people on YouTube and TikTok dedicated their time to sober, serious analysis too.

DC-based lawyer Devin Stone, who heads the YouTube channel LegalEagle, posted a nearly 22-minute-long video breaking down the case and what led up to it. But he began his video by making fun of the flood of videos cheering on Depp and bashing Heard. “This latest suit and countersuit is already turning into a circus,” he said in his video, which has garnered more than 1.7 million views. “Determining the truth of domestic violence allegations is invariably a challenging prospect. As a result, the public’s response to these allegations has been incredibly polarizing.”

The emotion amped up during Depp’s and Heard’s competing testimonies on the stand, during which evidence in the form of recordings of personal interactions and text messages, which celebrities usually try to shield from the public, were brought into plain view.

The drama gave married lawyers Ashleigh Ruggles Stanley, 28, and Maclen Stanley, 31, a chance to bring some celebrity culture onto their TikTok account, @the.law.says.what

“When people think about the law, it sounds very boring, and not like an exciting TikTok you’d like to watch,” Ashleigh said. “So whenever there’s a tie-in to something that people are already interested in … people are excited to watch.”

They’ve also broken down courtroom tactics and reactions, drawing in more than 12.8 million views for their 59-second video explaining why Depp’s lawyer once made a celebratory fist pump when Heard said something seemingly innocuous on the stand.

“That’s a good foothold to step in and say, ‘Hey, you might have seen and even liked this viral video, but let’s talk about what’s actually happening,'” she added. 

@the.law.says.what let’s discuss Johnny Depp’s lawyer’s fist pump #fyp#foryoupage#amberheard#johnnydepp#lawtok#edutok#johnnydepptiktok♬ original sound – Maclen & Ashleigh

Musso, the musician from Texas, didn’t expect to record any more parody songs about the case. He thought his moment in the sun from the trial was worth three songs. That’s it.

His final offering, Johnny Depp’s Rap (The Final Trial Bop), attracted more than 195,000 views between TikTok and YouTube. One commenter pleaded, “This can’t be the last. We need a cross examination bop and a verdict bop.”

But Musso had made his decision. “I don’t want people to get too sick of it.”


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