CONTENT WARNING: This article discusses domestic violence.

If you’ve used the internet in the past month, you’ve undoubtedly seen coverage of the Amber Heard/Johnny Depp trial. Depp is suing ex-girlfriend Heard for defamation, seeking $50 million USD ($71.4 million AUD) in damages, following the publication of a 2018 essay in The Washington Post where she identified as a survivor of abuse.

It’s not the first lawsuit Depp has filed in an effort to defend his reputation. In 2018, he sued British tabloid The Sun for libel after it referred to him as a “wife beater”. In late 2020, a judge found The Sun’s article to be “substantially true”, finding that 12 of the 14 alleged incidents of domestic violence occurred. But if you look at the conversation online, it’s dominated by fans painting Depp as the victim of Heard’s manipulation and abuse. Why?

It’s hard to chalk it up to just one thing. Some have blamed true crime for encouraging people to view legal proceedings as another form of entertainment, and while I think that’s partly true, I also think it’s not particularly new; I may have only been two-years-old when the OJ Simpson trial took place, but I’ve heard a lot about it since. Not least of all because of its connection to one of the most famous families in the English-speaking world. That was a murder trial, however. I cannot recall this much public interest in a defamation trial before now.

Others have pointed to stan culture as a contributing factor, and I’m inclined to give that more weight — we saw how jarring it can be for stan culture and “real life” to coincide earlier this year when people responded to the Russian invasion of Ukraine by thirsting over Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and talking about it like it’s yet another superhero blockbuster.

Sadly, I think this form of engagement that was previously largely associated with diehard stans of musicians and other artists has become standard fare. Video edits, hashtags crafted in an attempt to go viral, memes: this is what “raising awareness” looks like now, but instead of spreading the good word about Jungkook and friends, it’s raising awareness of the fact that #AmberHeardIsALiar.

It’s important to call this out for what it is, which is at least partly a backlash against #MeToo. You can see this in the way Depp stans turned Depp’s testimony about Heard (or a friend of hers) defecating on his side of the bed as “revenge” into a pithy hashtag making fun of the movement, #MePoo; they also took to calling Heard “Amber Turd” following the revelation. Stans have expressed frustration with the way #MeToo has ignored male victims of abuse in Hollywood, as well as frustration with the adage to “believe women”. To them, this case is emblematic of both of these problems with the movement.

The sheer volume of posts on social media has been overwhelming — at the time of writing, the hashtag #johnnydeppisinnocent has been used in more than 192,000 posts on Instagram, while #amberheardisanabuser has been used more than 41,000 times. Some of this discrepancy can be chalked up to the fact that Depp has had much longer to build up a devoted fanbase, having started acting before Heard was even born.

But even that doesn’t explain just how inescapable coverage and commentary surrounding this trial has been. Every day of the trial I’ve seen livestreams on TikTok, as well as videos set to popular sounds, no matter how many times I click “not interested”. Brands are making videos about it and being celebrated for supporting Depp, as though their motivation is anything other than mercenary. YouTube is even worse — videos that are deliberately misleading have nonetheless managed to accrue hundreds of thousands of views because they support a pro-Depp/anti-Heard narrative, and compilation videos like this one titled “Johnny Depp Being Hilarious in Court!” have racked up more than 15 million views. SNL has even made a skit poking fun at the trial.

It’s even spilling out into real life. Fans are lining up for hours outside the courthouse in order to get a seat in the public gallery. People interviewed one woman who has watched the trial in person so many times that she says her loved ones “think I’m nuts”, but that she does it because “it’s exhilarating seeing this in person”. Another woman spent about $30,000 USD ($43,000 AUD) and used a year’s worth of her paid vacation leave in order to attend the trial in person.

Fans who make it into the courtroom have been reprimanded for laughing at Depp’s quips and have been told by the judge to behave or risk removal. Two Depp fans were removed from the courtroom last month after it was discovered that one had tweeted “I Can’t Wait For The Day I Kill Amber Heard” in 2016, while the other had tweeted the name of a London hotel Heard was staying at in 2021.

@eddyburback2 #stitch with @jessvalortiz ♬ original sound – eddyburback

Perhaps even stranger are the people turning the trial into fanfiction. Miles Klee cited one tweet that read, “I want Johnny Depp to win this trial, look directly at Amber, and say, ‘You will always remember this as the day you almost caught Captain Jack Sparrow’ and walk out of the courtroom. Then, I will be satisfied.” Another example Klee references is a TikTok video with more than 1.5 million likes with the caption “Johnny Depp looking at her for a split second gives her a smile.” which doesn’t actually feature Depp smiling at Heard at all.

One bizarre video that received almost 2 million likes but has since been deleted featured someone acting out Heard’s testimony of Depp hitting her using their cat; more than 13,000 videos have been made using that sound since it was uploaded last week. Someone made a “Which Johnny are you?” filter that includes the persona of “Courtroom Johnny” alongside his iconic roles like Edward Scissorhands and Jack Sparrow, further confirming for me that many fans see this trial as simply another form of entertainment.

Treating this trial as just another form of content to be consumed allows fans to impose whatever narratives they want onto the people involved, regardless of the facts of the case. This approach allows them to ignore the ruling in the UK lawsuit, for example; it doesn’t suit the narrative they’ve constructed of Depp as an innocent victim and Heard as a vindictive and abusive shrew. It allows them to make jokes and memes and funny reenactments even when the topic is something as serious as domestic abuse. There are no limits because it doesn’t feel like real life to them.

Numerous people have complained about YouTube, TikTok and Instagram showing them content from the trial, even if they consistently click “not interested”. The sheer ubiquity of the coverage has led some people to speculate that bot accounts are involved, or that Depp’s team is paying social media platforms to promote pro-Depp content. Cyabra, a tech startup that includes clients such as the US State Department, analysed tweets about the trial from roughly March 13, before the trial started, through to April 25, and found that almost 95 percent of the accounts tweeting in support of Depp are genuine. Anecdotally, many of the accounts I’ve seen that tweet almost solely about the trial are either new ones that have been made specifically for that purpose, or old ones that have been revived — this suggests that people are going out of their way to use Twitter in order to follow this trial because it remains the best social media platform for real-time updates and information.

Real fans (and, obviously, influencers and the media) are driving the majority of this coverage and it seems baffling because we’ve never lived through a situation quite like it, where a star as beloved as Depp is, in the eyes of his fans, fighting to get both his reputation and career back. The more people engage with content about the trial, the more popular that content becomes and the more algorithms think others will want to see it, even if they’ve never shown interest in it before.

That a defamation trial involving one of the biggest actors of the past 30 years would make headlines is not surprising. That it would prompt such a uniquely online expression of support that dominates every social media platform to the point that people are suspicious that bots are involved or that Depp’s team is paying someone money to manipulate the TikTok algorithm is surprising. But it’s also potentially indicative of a new norm in online engagement, where proxy battles are waged online while real battles take place in courtrooms or on literal battlefields. In this day and age, everything’s content, baby.

Catherine Bouris is a writer based in Sydney. She can be found on Twitter @catherinebouris and pretty much everywhere else on the internet.

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