The court case which took the world by storm has been documented on practically every social media platform and news outlet, transforming these platforms into daily court room dramas. It has sensationalised the justice system and turned what should be a private matter into a spectacle. Yes, the Depp vs. Heard case is the court case of the year, possibly the decade. But today’s post isn’t about discerning who’s guilty or innocent, who said what, or what legal team performed better. It’s about showcasing the media’s positioning in this case and how it took a court case from Fairfax County Virginia and propelled it internationally. In doing so these media outlets and social media platforms used a case based on sexual abuse in order to drive traffic and views.
Celebrity court cases have always been a sensitive issue; actors, singers and the like’s positioning as public figures allows an audience to feel like they should know every detail, that the career they choose dictates their lack of privacy. Think of the ‘Wagatha Christie’ case that has fulled the newspapers over the past couple of weeks here in the UK; there are consistent trends with the media’s positioning in these cases, the discourse they create and ultimately the power they hold.
When reflecting on the Depp vs. Heard case, I found it particularly interesting how fans scrambled to every corner of the internet to showcase their love for Johnny, how they were quick to tare down the woman on the other side of the case, and how many were quick to lose perspective. This case was never about discerning someone as guilty of abuse, it was about defamation of character. A matter that had the media at the heart of it.
I was inspired to write on the subject after reading an article by Vice titled ‘The Daily Wire Spent Thousands of Dollars Promoting Anti-Amber Heard Propaganda’. It angered me that these organisations were spending far too much just to get an audience to read about an issue that had very little wider social consequences.
If the idea of the case wasn’t enough to contend with, news outlets were now at each others throats over the moral positioning of covering it. The article states that ‘the conservative outlet [The Daily Wire], founded by Ben Shapiro, is currently the second most popular news publisher on Facebook. It has so far spent between $35,000 and $47,000, on Facebook and Instagram ads promoting articles about the trial, eliciting some four million impressions.’ If this wasn’t enough to showcase the insanity that is derived from the facts above, it states that the trial has been documented more than the Russian Ukraine war and the fight for reproductive rights in the US. Arguably, these are more important issues that are actually in need of air time. Moreover, The Daily Wire, according to this article, also spent ‘$20,000 to $25,000’ on an advert promoting the articled dubbed ‘The Attempted Character Assassination of Johnny Depp.’ Withstanding the information on the trial, the basis of it is, is that The Daily Wire are using a case founded on sexual abuse to get foot fall on their platform. But they aren’t the only one…
As I mentioned, the article above is from Vice, the article which uses the Russian Ukraine war and abortion rights to highlight how the media are covering the wrong topics, in terms of the volume in which they are pursuing them. However, they themselves have some shocking statistics to contend with. In my research I found that Vice covered the Depp vs Heard Case in 56,194 articles and 644 videos (when researched on the 5th of June) vs. their coverage on the Russia Ukraine war which they have covered in a total of 21,129 articles and only 239 videos. Clearly, when publishing the article they did not observe their own overly populated website. However, statistics and websites aside, they both show the nature in which the case was handled and how conversations around the topic grow – if media outlets give these topics enough coverage, they instantly become popular and desirable. Thus, you end up in the position where public opinion is just as strong as a jury’s verdict. That in itself is a scary place to live in.
|‘Johnny Depp’||‘Amber Heard’|
|#Johnnydepp – 33.2 billion||#amberheard – 18.9 billion|
|#johnnydeppvsamberheard 1.3 billion||#amberheardjohnnydepp – 2.3 billion|
|#johnnydeppcourt 494.2 million||#amberheardsucks – 4.0 million|
|#supportjohnnydepp – 163.9 million||#amberheardlawyerssucks – 15.3 million|
|#johnnydepptrial – 4.0 billion||#amberheardisguilty – 930.2 million|
|#savejohnnydepp – 25.6 million||#antiamberheard – 2.1 million|
|#johnnydeppisanabuser – 1.2 million||#boycottamberheard – 1.4 million|
When searching ‘Johnny Depp’ and ‘Amber Heard’ on TikTok there was a clear difference in the words associated with the two individuals. The watch time for Depp was considerably higher compared to Heard, and the supportive nature of Depp’s hashtags was clearly more favourable (see table). There was only one hashtag of a negative nature associated with Depp and it was viewed considerably less compared to Heard’s. It is shown in these statistics not only how much the case was engaged with but how these conversations can be curated and moulded to fit a particular narrative. The fact they are both individuals, with families and lives, are forgotten about.
It wasn’t just TikTok where hashtags populated the platform – #johnnydeppisinnocent (223k posts), #amberheard (554k posts), #amberheardisanabuser (52k posts) #amberheardisaliar (24.4k posts) – were amongst the most popular hashtags on the subject on the primarily photo based platform Instagram, which showed the sheer amount of coverage the trial got. This information is easily accessible and it is not hard to see the issues with social media being viewed as ‘news’ in itself. CNN, among other broadcasting giants, decided to cover the trial with it being live-streamed on TikTok (a first for the platform). Adding these news platforms to popular streaming platforms means people instantly make the connection of fact with video, imagery etc. Forgetting, that any person can comment on any situation and upload it. You are instantly putting the likes of a 12 year old armed with only the very basic information on the same level as a reputable news outlet.
David Sillito in his article ‘Trial by TikTok’ for the BBC stated that ‘there have essentially been two cases here – one decided by a jury and another by the public’. In that sense he is right, the public are deciding who works again, who gets ‘canceled’, who receives a ferocious amount of abuse and who gets viewed as the victim. Is this always based on fact? Or a considered and balanced viewpoint?. Sillito includes in his article a quote from Cyabra, an Israeli firm that tracks online disinformation which followed the Depp/Heard case for weeks: ‘”11% of the conversation around the trial was driven by fake accounts, which is a very high number.”‘. Rafi Mendelsohn from the Israeli firm states that ‘”On average, we see maybe around 3-5% of the conversation [around any matter] involving fake accounts”‘. With this case having 11% of coverage being fake and then adding public opinion which is often conducted by those who haven’t done their research or checked for reliable sources, it poses the question on how much information we receive nowadays is actually real? And how much of it alters our views unknowingly? Then in the context of the case, the statistics found by Cyabra shows that the increase in coverage went hand in hand with creating false information, suggesting it is not only the news outlets that are promoting trauma for their own gain. However, the large corporations can still be found at the heart of this issue as in writing so widely on the subject they are instigating these false narratives and creating a need for them. Both equally as damaging.
Justice was largely robbed from the professionals as public opinion was regarded at the same level if not higher.
What I am trying to showcase is how these news outlets writing on the subject to such a degree, is what creates this need for content and coverage. If it wasn’t given a platform to begin with, the notoriety of the case would not have gotten to such a damaging level. These bots would not have falsified information and people would not have contributed their own personal opinion to a level that meant what happened in the court room was of little consequence. Justice was largely robbed from the professionals as public opinion was regarded at the same level if not higher.
Whether the viewpoint they are sharing is right or not, it does set a standard for how future cases are dealt with and how each person is viewed. Depp wanted the viewpoint of ‘innocent to proven guilty’ reinstated but arguably, the rate that the public perception of the case changed through out – jumping on witnesses and the accused before a verdict was even issued – may prove that Depp’s wish is not granted, in fact it had just reversed itself.
Finally, in the Scotsman article ‘Anti-Feminism and Anti-Woke backlashes is being disguised as legitimate criticism’ by Alistair Stewart carries forward this debate stating that ‘we are so enamoured and defined by celebrities that we will convince ourselves of anything to defend or excuse them. […] Social media turned us all into mudslingers and armchair experts.’ Stewart, makes the point that the abuse being hurled on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and TikTok is reminiscent of acts seen in the 1800’s and is focused on promoting the individual to an expert rather than someone with an opinion. Not everyone can expect someone to have perspective or see facts without a biased viewpoint attached to them, but social media does not regulate this or remind the innocent viewer of possible prejudice. It lets everyone share and everyone the same chance to go ‘viral’.
Interestingly, Stewart states that ‘Depp and Heard never stopped being characters on our screen for our entertainment. We exchanged a cinema for courtroom drama and wished for as much sordid deprivation, misery, strikeout moments, oddball witnesses, hysteria and injustice as we could get.’ And Stewart is right, headlines of Depp’s lawyers filled publications daily, the opposition was ripped apart, Heard was scrutinised for her clothing and emotions (or lack thereof), witnesses were either applauded for their quick wit or labeled as embarrassments, and Depp was constantly compared to his role as Captain Jack Sparrow. Performance was as at the heart of this trial as much as it has been in their on-screen roles and in that sense, the trial was getting rated and reviewed like any odd blockbuster.
Moreover, Stewart states that ‘only six [out of 37 sources] noted in their headline that Heard won one of three counter-claims and was awarded $2m in compensatory damages.’ Effectively, Stewart puts into perspective how information had been cherrypicked and used to fuel the already popular position.
Regardless of the case itself, the ending had both positives and negatives for the legacy of sexual abuse cases to come. But in the matter of defamation, which was largely erased from most narratives, and the media’s role when it comes to justice, I hope there are lessons learned in the lack of perspective apparent in these outlets. Whether that stems from public platforms like TikTok and Instagram or ‘professional’ spaces like news publications; the money spent on one celebrity case was enough to do a lot of good for worldwide, ongoing issues.
For now, we can still say justice has an actual role to play in proving people as innocent or guilty and thankfully has the deciding vote, thus it can be said that the media’s efforts are better spent elsewhere, where they can actually make a difference.
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What’s your opinion? Had you considered this perspective before or were you enamoured with the media storm like the vast majority of us?