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How Amber Heard lost

Who Trolled Amber?, a new investigative series from Tortoise, asks: was the social media response to the trial a coordinated campaign of hate?

By Anna Leszkiewicz

When the defamation trial between the divorced actors Johnny Depp and Amber Heard began in Virginia in April 2022, Depp entered the courtroom as something of the underdog. During their divorce, Heard had claimed that Depp had been physically abusive towards her; Depp lost a defamation case against the Sun when a British judge ruled that the paper’s depiction of Depp as a “wife beater” was “substantially true”, as the “great majority of alleged assaults of Ms Heard by Mr Depp have been proved to the civil standard”. Depp maintained that Heard’s allegations were false. In the US trial, unlike the British one, Depp and Heard sued each other directly. Also unlike the British one, the whole thing was televised.

Clips of the trial soon began circulating on social media, showing Depp as self-assured, sarcastic, flippant, and Heard as emotional, defensive, brittle. Heard’s testimony was scrutinised first in court and then again online, with commentators picking apart every minor detail of her recollections, down to accusing her of manipulating images of her injuries and lying about the brand of colour-correcting make-up she used to cover her bruises. The case was posted about thousands of times a day, usually with a clear bias towards Depp. The jury returned a shocking result: that Heard’s extensive allegations were both false and malicious, awarding Depp $15m in damages.

Who Trolled Amber?, a new investigative series from Tortoise Media, asks: was the social media response to the trial a coordinated campaign of hate? Its host, Alexi Mostrous (who also led Sweet Bobby and Hoaxed, which looked at catfishing and conspiracies respectively), recruits researchers to find out. They discover that more than half of the critical posts against Heard were “inauthentic” – generated by bots. It’s a revelation that poses more questions than it solves. Did bots sway public opinion? Was the jury influenced by this degraded online discourse? These more philosophical queries inevitably remain unanswered.

Who Trolled Amber?
Tortoise Media

[See also: The strange history of the pill]

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This article appears in the 13 Mar 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The battle for Keir Starmer’s soul