‘Amber Heard v Johnny Depp’ turned into lawsuit by TikTok – and we’re all worse for it | Amelie Tait

Say what you like about Amber Heard – no, seriously, do it. It’s safe to say the actor took a cocaine bump while on the stand in one of the most high-profile libel cases of the century. You can tell she stole lines from The Talented Mr Ripley and recited them in court while testifying about her relationship with fellow actor Johnny Depp. On social media, you can say these two unfounded and unfounded things, and many more.

Over the past week, these two unsubstantiated allegations have spread faster than wildfires. For those of you unfamiliar with the Depp and Heard saga, bear with me: In June 2018, Depp sued News Group Newspapers – the company that publishes the Sun – after the newspaper alleged he was a “woman beater”. Later that year, Heard published an op-ed on sexual violence in The Washington Post (Depp was not mentioned in the article). Depp lost his libel battle against the Sun in London’s High Court in November 2020, after the judge found that the majority of Depp’s alleged assaults on Heard had been “proven to the civil standard” (according to the preponderance probabilities). He is now suing Heard for defamation over his editorial in the Washington Post.

The internet has therefore gone wild. It’s ironic that a libel suit can elicit so much blatant libel. Constantly rolling cameras in the courtroom allowed a complicated and intimate case to play out like a spectator sport. Endless clips of the trial were chopped up and rehashed on social media platforms for raving audiences. On social media, people say what they want about Depp and Heard, with disturbing and unbalanced results.

A recent TikTok trend involved people making excited facial expressions over an audio clip of Heard testifying about his alleged sexual assault by Depp (the audio clip has since been removed from the site). Another saw TikTokers interpret Heard’s abuse testimony, twisting and turning like pantomime actors in an attempt to point out supposed inconsistencies in his account.

Whether or not a person believes Heard’s testimony, they must believe that nothing good can come from minimizing and mocking descriptions of abuse. The lawsuit has shown more clearly than ever that a culture of toxic fandom has poisoned our brains. On Etsy, fans can purchase “Justice for Johnny” t-shirts and “Fuck Amber Heard” mugs. On social networks, you are either Team Depp or Team Heard; very few people seem to be on the side of the justice system. Why wait to see what the judge and jury have to say, when you can easily pick a side from the comfort of your own home?

For many, the case became a source of comedy. On TikTok, crying laughing emojis abound on courtroom clips with titles like “Funniest Witness Moments So Far” and “Funny Johnny Depp Moments Part 3.” A user put a filter on the images of Heard’s testimony so that his nose sticks out like Pinocchio’s. On YouTube, anyone and everyone weighs in: a video titled “Woodworker Attorney DEBUNKS Amber Heard’s ‘Broken Bed’ Testimony!” has over 277,000 views. News websites repeated unsubstantiated claims without criticism articles with hands-off headlines like “Viewers notice…” and “People say…”.

Is it too much to ask to deal darkly with a dark subject? That we’re not turning a serious, sensitive essay into content for our feeds? In an ideal world, even the most salacious celebrity lawsuit would be covered in a dignified and respectful manner. Even the biggest, most ardent, and invested fan would put their hero worship aside while a jury deliberates whether their idol sexually assaulted a woman with a bottle of liquor.

But the fandom never drew the line at the courthouse door, and we’re all poorer for it. Screaming fans were filmed throwing gifts through Depp’s car windows as he left the Virginia courtroom. No trial should be treated like a gig or a date, and a court case should never be an opportunity to wave a homemade sign in front of a celebrity.

Fans should be aware that their own behavior around celebrity lawsuits is under scrutiny. In theory, anyone can be sued for defamation for what they write on social media (although in practice the cases we read about involve tweets from high-profile people, such as TV doctors, right-wing provocateurs and comedians). Even without the threat of a lawsuit, people need to be much more careful about what they post online. Fans may wholeheartedly believe that their idols are innocent, but serious accusations should be taken seriously. Descriptions of abuse should not be turned into flippant comedy clips. Otherwise, we risk creating a world where people turn to TikTok videos for the last word on the truth, instead of the courts.

  • Amelia Tait is a writer on technological phenomena and the Internet

  • This article was last modified on May 11, 2022. Johnny Depp is suing Amber Heard, not the Washington Post, as an earlier version stated.

  • Do you have an opinion on the issues raised in this article? If you would like to submit a letter of up to 300 words to be considered for publication, email it to us at guardian.letters@theguardian.com

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