The battle between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard has illustrated and deepened the divide between established progressive publications and creator-driven platforms in the United States. YouTubers, TikTokers and Instagram influencers have rallied vehemently to Depp’s cause, drawing a contrary reaction from liberal outlets. It bodes ill for progressives that the numbers are stacked so heavily against them. Suspicion of mainstream media, already sky high, is bound to rise further as a consequence of the way the trial has been covered.
To provide a brief background to the case: in May 2016 the actor Amber Heard accused Depp of physically abusing her during their four year relationship. Depp was among the biggest stars in global entertainment in that period, best known for playing Jack Sparrow in the hugely successful Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. His stock has sunk in recent years thanks to atrocious films like Mortdecai, Alice Through the Looking Glass and The Professor, but also because Heard’s allegations, amplified by the MeToo movement, led to calls for him to be boycotted.
In October 2018, timed with the release of the superhero blockbuster Aquaman in which she played the role of Mera, Heard published an op-ed in the Washington Post highlighting her own status as a victim of abuse. Although the piece was carefully vetted by lawyers and didn’t mention Depp by name, he sued her for defamation, claiming the article caused him to lose lucrative assignments like a planned sixth Pirates outing. Heard countersued, alleging her career and image were hurt by Depp’s attorney Adam Waldman calling her a hoaxer.
As I write this, oral arguments have concluded and the jury is out, literally so. The verdict might take a while given the volume of material produced through six weeks of back-and-forth. My feeling is that all claims will be denied, because the bar to prove defamation in the United States is extremely high. To my mind neither party provided clear and convincing proof the other lied about the central issues. Each produced doctors, mental health professionals, forensic analysts and eyewitnesses to bolster its own narrative and they largely cancelled each other out. Much of the same evidence had been placed before an English judge in a libel case against the Sun tabloid, which printed an article labelling Depp a wife-beater. That trial ended in a comprehensive defeat for the actor.
Appealing to public opinion
This time round, the majority of observers, such as four lawyers who discussed the case on the popular Runkle of the Bailey channel, think the Depp team did enough to score a victory on one or more counts. However, the star’s primary intent seems to have been to appeal to the court of public opinion rather than win a lawsuit. Every minute of the trial in a Virginia courtroom was broadcast live on the Law & Crime Network’s cable and online channels. An average of over 10 million viewers tuned in for at least part of each day’s proceeding, and responses by both men and women overwhelmingly favoured Depp.
The #justiceforjohnnydepp tag achieved some 10 billion views on TikTok, over a thousand times the numbers for Heard-aligned tags. Crowds outside the courtroom multiplied as the trial developed, skewing female and vocally pro-Depp. Happily, the few Heard supporters present were not mistreated or silenced.
Initially, national newspapers largely ignored the process because a civil defamation suit seemed trivial in a time of pandemic, wars, and mass shootings. Once enormous public interest had turned the suit into a cultural milestone, it gained coverage in national and international media, not through reporters in the courtroom but in opinion columns focused on popular responses to the trial.
The main contention of these pieces, like ones published in the New York Times, Vogue, the New Yorker and Vox, was that the output on creator media was heavily misogynistic. This is certainly true. A number of YouTube commentators spent weeks hurling personal insults at Amber Heard, her supporters, and her legal team. Their frequent derisive comments about appearance and dress made me want to ask, “Dudes, have you looked in a mirror lately?”
Having picked a side, YouTubers and TikTokers utterly refused to see Johnny Depp as anything other than an innocent, wronged man and Heard as anything other than a lying witch. Their captions and thumbnails employed sensational words like “destroyed”, “owned”, “exposed” or “crushed”, and only one side was ever being destroyed, owned, exposed and crushed.
They denigrated as freeloaders Heard’s sister Whitney, who swore to having seen Depp beat Heard, and two friends who testified to seeing injuries on her in a Los Angeles penthouse on May 21, 2016. A makeup artist’s statement that she had covered up bruises on Heard’s face before the actor’s appearance on the James Corden show in December 2015 was almost completely ignored. When that testimony was considered at all, it was only to support Johnny Depp’s version of the event which had him accidentally butting foreheads with his then wife while trying to stop her from hitting him.
I was not surprised to see this level of bias on YouTube. I watch a lot of material on the platform, most of it neutral subjects like music, sports, science, technology, art and world history, but the algorithm keeps suggesting political content that leans solidly right. This was exacerbated in the Covid months, during which the platform turned into a hotbed of conspiracy theorists despite removing thousands of videos considered misinformative. It became very lucrative for creators to push out videos questioning the status quo, and it is telling that a few putatively progressive commentators like the British comedian Russell Brand gradually moved into the camp of anti-Fauci, anti-vaccine crazies.
If mainstream opinion columnists had restricted themselves to condemning bias on YouTube, few would have complained. Writers could legitimately have critiqued Depp’s insane jealousy and his effort to control what clothes Heard wore and what films she accepted. Sadly many went further and took her side in the core conflict about physical abuse. Amanda Hess wrote in the New York Times, “Exhibits supporting Heard’s claims – like a video she recorded of Depp pouring himself a gigantic cup of wine and violently smashing glasses in their kitchen one morning – are stripped of evidentiary value and bandied about as memes.”
In fact, the evidentiary value of that video has been discussed threadbare online and it is far from clear it supports Heard’s claims because, while Depp is clearly upset, and grows angrier on discovering she is secretly recording him, he doesn’t commit any act of violence against her.
Aja Romano wrote in Vox, “The contours of the abuse were well-established before the 2018 opinion column Depp is suing over was published… But the basic, well-established facts do not seem to matter.” Romano also claimed, “The narrative of the trial has been shaped in part by what appears to be, according to multiple researchers, an army of bots spreading rhetoric favorable to Depp.” But the only cyber experts in the links she provided came to an opposite conclusion: “Cyabra, a Tel Aviv-based startup that analyzes online conversations and spots disinformation, believes that Depp’s online fan base is overwhelmingly real.”
Raven Smith went all-in through an article in Vogue titled, “Why it’s time to believe Amber Heard” ending with the line, “It’s time to believe women – all women. It’s time to believe Heard.” Smith’s Twitter feed was inundated with variations of the same counter-argument, namely that the article pushed a kind of blind faith that precluded independent thinking. Smith, like Romano, argued that the UK trial had produced a definitive interpretation of the matter. Both writers failed to gauge the public’s attitude, which was that the “system” had betrayed Johnny Depp and now for the first time they were being allowed to see all the facts and make up their own minds.
Taking the position liberal opinion columnists did was not only a terrible strategic choice but bad in principle. Just because Amber Heard has faced disproportionate vilification doesn’t mean her own behaviour has been laudatory or even defensible. Her testimonies, whether previous depositions or statements on the stand, have been riddled with straightforward lies and probable untruths. She lied about donating her $7 million divorce settlement to charity. Questioned about the issue, she maintained that pledging an amount is the same as actually donating it.
She lied that two images, one of which showed a possible bruise to her right cheek, were taken at different times in different light. Not only were the two images identical aside from the colour saturation, forensic analysis showed they were captured at exactly the same moment.
There is also the fact that neutral deponents – witnesses who are not relatives, friends or employees of either party – have favoured Depp. Police were called twice on May 21, 2016 to a Los Angeles penthouse the couple shared, a crucial incident that spurred Heard’s restraining order and divorce filing. Her bruised face was featured prominently by the entertainment site TMZ and People magazine a few days later, making her story public. But none of the officers who answered the May 21 calls noticed any physical damage. Officer Melissa Saenz of the LAPD testified she had interviewed Heard and, “closely examined her face and found no marks, swelling, or injury”, concluding, “I did not identify her as a victim of domestic violence.”
To make matters worse, there is evidence that Heard was herself abusive. She admitted on tape to hitting Depp and to initiating physical fights. Jessica Winter in the New Yorker turned that on its head, writing, “Two pieces of evidence that her detractors hold up to allege that it was Heard, in fact, who was abusive – an audio recording in which she admits to hitting him and another in which she mocks any claim he might make of being a victim of domestic violence – both sound uncannily like fragments from a DARVO [deny, attack, and reverse victim and offender] scenario, in which an abuser denies what he is doing at the same time that he deflects and projects his behavior onto the person he is abusing.” Aside from a more sophisticated use of language and references, Winter’s Orwellian argument is every bit as twisted as the militantly pro-Depp content on creator media.
Had the Depp-Heard trial been covered extensively by reporters for mainstream publications, we would have received an account of a deeply dysfunctional, mutually abusive relationship, and come away with a sense that sometimes the truth does lie somewhere in the middle. Instead we got YouTubers and opinion columnists giving us one-eyed views from diametrically opposed perspectives.
Their responses are symptomatic of the capture of Left and Right by extreme ideas over the past decade, with the Right being taken over by Trumpian conspiracy theorists and the Left capitulating to irrational identity politics. The worry for people broadly sympathetic to the left is that Right-wing content creators are managing to draw new converts to their cause even as progressive commentators alienate many of their old allies.