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How much does a jury’s final verdict matter when social media has already made up its mind?


By Sarah Gill
28th May 2022

Getty Images

How much does a jury’s final verdict matter when social media has already made up its mind?

They say there’s no such thing as bad publicity, but in the case of Depp v Heard, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

A case that’s rooted in defamation, the Johnny Depp and Amber Heard trial deals with themes of domestic violence, substance abuse, and mental health issues — so why is the internet enjoying it so much?

Since the trial began on 11 April right up until closing arguments were heard, ‘Depp v Heard’ became the source of much fixation. While the final verdict remains firmly in the hands of the jury, perhaps the most significant decision of the entire trial was that of Judge Azcarate allowing the trial to be broadcast live.

Through our television, laptop and phone screens, the Fairfax County Courtroom became the backdrop to the internet’s new favourite drama, with Depp and Heard taking on the leading roles. Key witnesses became guest stars, some likeable, others considered much less savoury, and in every great drama, there has to be a villain.

I’m not here to comment on whether I believe our sympathies should lie with either party, I’m quite confident in saying that anyone reading this will have already made their own judgements on that. I am, however, interested in the mirror this defamation trial held up to society, its ubiquitous nature, and how much a legal ruling really matters in a case concerned with reputation.

From the live broadcast playing out on Youtube to condensed user-generated content appearing on TikTok, social media quickly became saturated with pro-Depp, anti-Heard rhetoric. Algorithms were informing opinions, and when lengthy testimonies are distilled into bite sized chunks, it can be difficult to know what’s real and what’s fake.

Johnny Depp is suing his ex-wife for $50 million on the grounds that his reputation and career suffered following a 2018 op-ed written for the Washington Post. Though he was not explicitly named, his ex-wife wrote that she was a victim of domestic abuse and Depp’s counsel are arguing that this constitutes “defamation by implication”.

Heard is counter-suing for $100 million, arguing that Depp and his legal team defamed her in their statements that her allegations were an “abuse hoax”. She claims that Depp “authorised and conspired” with his counsel in order to “attempt to destroy and defame Ms Heard in the press”.

While the purpose of proceedings is to reach a decision on whether or not Depp did, in fact, perpetrate abuse against Heard, thus making her article substantially true, both parties have made claims of physical and psychological abuse against the other.

It has been said that this trial is an exercise in public redemption. While there may not be enough evidence on either side to warrant a legal win for Depp, the trial seems to have, for better or worse, cleared the actor’s name in the eyes of the people.

Throughout the many weeks of the Depp v Heard trial, the court has heard in no uncertain terms the level of trauma experienced by both parties. Recounting some of the darkest moments of a toxic relationship is doubtlessly triggering, yet the internet continues to lap it up.

As spectators to a celebrity trial, any and all reverence has been decimated. Celebrity culture has alienated us from these people to such an extent that we no longer view them as human beings with real, human emotions.

When I was ordering a round in my local pub, I spotted two tip jars on the bar, each with a different label stuck to the side. The one which overflowed with coins and five quid notes had ‘Johnny Depp’ scrawled along the side, while the tip jar emblazoned with ‘Amber Heard’ went untouched.

One particular skit on Saturday Night Live, opened with Kate McKinnon in the role of a reporter, lampooning what they dubbed a ‘cuckoo trial’. “With all the problems in the world,” she says, “isn’t it nice to have a news story we can all collectively watch and say, ‘Ooh, glad it ain’t me?’”

The comedy sketch was done in poor taste, but its commentary on the trial’s descent into something of a circus rings true.

When Dr David Spiegel took to the stand to testify on Depp’s mental state, stating that the actor displayed “behaviours that are consistent with someone that both has substance-use disorder, as well as behaviours of someone who is a perpetrator of intimate-partner violence”, the psychiatrist’s WedMD page was inundated with negative reviews, with one user commenting that the one-star review was because he “called my boyfriend Johnny a stupid pirate”.

While there were a few defending Dr Spiegel and the majority of negative remarks have since been removed, it shows just how riled up avid followers of this trial can get. If you thought that was weird, there’s even a niche side of the internet hoping against hope that Depp and his legal council, Camille Vasquez, are in a relationship.

A polarising case by anyone’s standards, the Depp v Heard defamation trial has seen social media become the new barometer of righteousness. These platforms have the power to make or break a career, and regardless of what the jury decides, if trending hashtags and viral memes are anything to go by, Johnny Depp’s name has been redeemed while Amber Heard is persona non grata.

In the op-ed that started it all, Heard wrote that she “faced our culture’s wrath”, but that seems to have been nothing on the reaction she’s received this time round.