Certain kinds of events entice people to come together and watch a spectacle. Moments of significant political history? Absolutely. Terror and tragedy? Sure. The defamation lawsuit between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard, however, should not be one of them. And yet yesterday evening I received a breaking news notification on my phone from a well-respected outlet, which read: “Actress Amber Heard takes the stand in defamation trial launched by ex-husband Johnny Depp – follow live here,” as though it was some kind of unmissable show everyone just had to watch. As if the subject of the lawsuit itself – allegations of domestic abuse – wasn’t difficult enough, the mainstream media and the internet’s reaction to the case has been nothing short of weird and uncomfortable.
Yet, in many ways, it’s not that surprising. I know how it’s meant to work: we’ve come to expect scandalous celebrity trials; and for news outlets, such events are a quick and easy way to generate traffic by covering them as news and by getting people – like me – to give their take. But the blockbusterisation of such trials seems to be getting out of hand. Almost every media platform you could think of on both sides of the Atlantic has been wall-to-wall live-streaming the Depp/Heard trial (which is allowed under US law) for hours on end, generating a tonne of views.
In a similarly sensational affair in October 2021, the actor Alec Baldwin was involved in an incident with a gun on a film set that led to the death of the cinematographer Halyna Hutchins, while the director Joel Souza was injured. The endless news coverage was topped by a “trailer” from US broadcaster ABC (complete with dramatic piano and strings, as well as inserts to let viewers know that Baldwin was “speaking out”), which noisily promoted an exclusive interview about an incident that left a wife and mother dead.
The fire-stoking in the Depp case, however, appears to have encouraged various sections of the internet to give similarly strange responses, something particularly discomfiting when domestic and sexual assault allegations are being made. You don’t have to search very hard on YouTube or TikTok to find a number of compilations – made by those who are supposedly on Depp’s side – that demonstrate the problem. Various videos, titled with variations of how Depp “owns” or is “savage” in court when responding to Heard’s legal team, fill the platform: deep-fried, memeified and fully “based”.
Depp himself, whether he’s playing to the crowd or not, has also cultivated a following – consisting of a surprisingly large number of women – backing him and villainising his ex-wife, Amber Heard. Any “truth” in this case, other than them having had a toxic relationship, is hard to see, and inevitably there is a lot of “he said, she said” testimony. But that hasn’t stopped hordes of people from supporting Depp (arguing that evidence supporting Heard’s alleged culpability was not allowed to be brought to trial).
People will say “The internet’s always been like this”, or even “Well you remember the OJ trial, right?” This is true: media sensationalism and the internet’s dark humour is nothing new. But I fear that the brazen coverage and dismissive attitude towards the allegations of abuse and assault in the Depp/Heard trial – exemplified by memes and chaotic TikToks – may form a new and concerning template for how public opinion is formed: one based on borderline tribalism, lacking in nuance and critical thinking.
For all the noise, it’s important to remember that domestic abuse is extremely prevalent across society. If people’s flippant and dismissive reactions to these allegations are a sign of things to come, it could have serious ramifications for vulnerable people who do not have the voice – or fandom – of a Hollywood star.