The mixed verdict in the Johnny Depp vs. Amber Heard defamation case seems, at the very least, reflective of the complex tumult that seemed to define the actors’ relationship, the details of which unfolded over six seemingly endless weeks in an unassuming Virginia courthouse. But it wasn’t wholly satisfying for those Depp superfans who decided that securing a victory for the “Pirates of the Caribbean” star was their new raison d’etre. For those people, who appeared to multiply with every passing day on every possible media platform, the only acceptable outcome was a total humiliation for Heard, who has been raised up the ultimate example of the #MeToo movement gone awry.
Before we keep going, let’s get one thing straight: This is not a column about whether Heard or Depp is innocent, nor about the truth of their marriage. This is not about how the verdict will discourage domestic violence victims from speaking out in the future, though that remains an extremely important and dismaying aspect that deserves attention and consideration going forward. This is, rather, about how disturbing it is that abuse allegations became fodder for endless speculation and memes for the LOLs. It’s about how depressingly unsurprising it was to see millions of people engage with this trial as if they were taking sides with their favorite soap opera characters, and how livestreaming this trial became a shortcut for the justice system to become nothing more than entertainment. It’s about how allowing TV cameras in a trial might have been a journalistic necessity once, but now it’s more effective in swaying the court of public opinion than anything else.
After decades of media selling famous disputes like primetime sports, repackaging true crime stories into bingeable bites, and even breathlessly following cops (and O.J. Simpson) on live high-speed chases, Depp and Heard just represent the latest chum tossed out to ravenous audiences for the sake of higher ratings. Encouraging people to take sides in celebrity disputes — whether a civil court case or a high-profile breakup (were you Team Jen or Team Angelina?) — is as old as the concept of celebrity itself. And given how easy platforms like Twitter, TikTok and YouTube make it to disseminate opinions, no matter how wild or unfounded, it was only a matter of time before something like Depp vs. Heard took advantage.
So, sure; it’s tempting to be surprised by just how quickly and completely Depp vs. Heard crept into every possible corner of the media. It might even be refreshing to be taken aback by the constant updates, gawking, and speculation that followed every dirty detail. And yet for as downright ugly as this lawsuit got, and as overwhelming as the response to it became, its evolution into a phenomenon mostly just felt inevitable.
Thanks to an easily accessible livestream, every minute of the Depp vs. Heard trial found an audience ready and willing to parse through every gesture, glance and sentence themselves. Once the narrative of “Heard bad, Depp good” solidified, so too did the feverish rush to piece together the evidence in a way that would support it. Even a casual search on TikTok will reveal hundreds of thousands of videos claiming to know the truth from the smallest kernel. Well before the jury rendered its verdict, the internet crawled with sneering jokes about Heard’s allegedly manufactured hysteria, whether from obsessed viewers, the makeup brand she claimed to use as cover-up for a bruise, or the Duolingo owl.
When people consume true life like scripted dramas, and news updates like twists in a script, it becomes all too easy for them to divorce reality from its humanity. Once Heard became the villain and Depp the victim, that was enough to keep millions, and all the media platforms that depend on those millions, hooked. Soon enough, though, the cameras won’t be on this story anymore. The appetite for it will wane, and our attention span will fade. But the consequences of the verdict will continue to ripple offscreen, throughout the real world so many forgot.