Depp vs. Heard: hype about a show trial


The legal battle between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard, broadcast live on the web, dominates social media. What role does the media spectacle play for the public and how does it affect victims of sexual violence?

Slaughter live online: Amber Heard vs. Johnny Depp

The defamation trial of Hollywood stars Johnny Depp and Amber Heard has become a controversial topic on the internet. The guilt and innocence of the ex-couple is hotly debated online. Unlike the court, social media influencers and their followers appear to have already made their judgments. The fact that so many people have a clear opinion about this celebrity mud fight is probably mainly due to the fact that the process is streamed live on the Internet.

It all started with an opinion piece that Amber Heard published in the Washington Post in 2018 amid the #MeToo movement. In her article, she wrote about domestic violence that she experienced first-hand. Her ex-husband Johnny Depp was not named in it. But the Pirates of the Caribbean star sued Heard in 2019 and turned the tables by claiming she framed him, saying she was the actual perpetrator. Heard responded with a counterclaim. Word agains word. Millions of dollars in damages are at stake. Now the trial is entering its final stages in a Virginia court this week. A verdict is set for May 27.

Johnny Depp accuses his ex-wife Amber Heard of Making false statements about domestic violence in the Washington Post in 2018

The “curse of the cameras”

Viewers can follow the mud fight worldwide free of charge on the “Court-TV” internet television channel. Some see it as an amusing feud between Hollywood millionaires, others an intolerable farce.

The “curse of the cameras” is at the core of the problem, says Cologne media lawyer Lucas Brost in DW- Interview. “The images stick – a crying Amber Heard or a smiling Johnny Depp. That evokes special emotions and reactions in the population.” 

From a German perspective, the process is “a very serious violation of personal rights,” said Brost. He sees it very critically that such a process reaches the media public, that PR teams are working, that media interpretation sovereignty is being fought for and that there are massive prejudices. “So the public forms an opinion that in the end has nothing to do with what the court might decide.”

Every emotion causes endless comments online, says media lawyer Lucas Brost

A public procedure should guarantee the greatest possible transparency in the USA. “The approach is understandable, but – as this procedure shows very clearly – it goes far beyond what it should be intended for. Because the media presence acts like a fire accelerator.” Every facial movement can be directly commented on and “in the ether”, says Brost, referring to the multiple sharing of the process on social media channels.

“Pendulum of the public swings in favor of Depp”

Brost suspects that nobody will benefit from this public process. Amber Heard in particular is a shame about the live broadcast. “The public's pendulum is swinging in favor of Johnny Depp.” However, the process is not a career booster for the Hollywood star, because piquant details come to light that get stuck in the public mind.

A supporter of Amber Heard stands outside the courthouse in Fairfax, Virginia where the trial is taking place

Numerous memes, parodies or content consisting of video snippets of the negotiation and taking sides with one side or the other and making the process ridiculous are now also circulating on the Internet. This creates the impression that the trial is a media spectacle that serves only entertainment. The US sexual sociologist Nicole Bedera fears that the trial could have far-reaching consequences for victims of sexual violence. 


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The social media pillory is merciless

The damage caused by influencers is immense, she says in a DW interview. “Influencers tend to benefit from a snowball effect of the algorithms. It can make it seem like once a lot of people support Johnny Depp, the majority of users on the web are on his side. And that's before Amber Heard could even comment.”

Amber Heard and her supporters are regularly subjected to shitstorms on social media

There have already been shitstorms on the internet against people who took Amber Heard's side. As a result, many people felt that they were no longer able to express themselves, according to Bedera.

Victims of sexual violence were among those intimidated by such campaigns. Some of them identified themselves with Amber Heard. Bedera also fears that such a show trial could prevent victims of sexual violence from taking legal action against perpetrators in the future, or they could even conceal their traumatic experiences altogether.

“Himpathy” on Social Media

But how does such a discrepancy arise? Why are people more likely to side with Johnny Depp? Why does the hashtag #IStandWithAmberHeard only have 8.6 million views on TikTok while #JusticeForJohnnyDepp has around 15.7 billion views?

There is a certain image of a “perfect victim” in public that does not correspond to the real experiences of a victim of sexual violence. This gap leads to greater empathy for men who are accused of sexual violence.” Philosopher Kate Manne calls this phenomenon “himpathy”, meaning the excessive empathy shown towards men at the expense of women in such a context “, says Bedera. She wasn't surprised that Johnny Depp received more sympathy than Amber Heard by broadcasting the trial live. “With these prejudices, which come into play when such a trial is broadcast live, the man concerned is almost always favoured, especially if he is a perpetrator.”

Johnny Depp attracts a lot of sympathy on social media channels

Depp vs. Heard's verdict not over

The dispute between Amber Heard and Johnny Depp has been going on for years. For a distanced assessment, the legal disputes of the past would also have to be taken into account. Yes, Bedera is certain that the media attention that the case is now attracting is unique. “It is very unusual that there are hashtags that are used billions of times.”

With In any case, the case will probably not be completed after the court hearing, as sociologist Nicole Bedera and media lawyer Lucas Brost agree. Such proceedings, which involve violence and celebrities, often have a major social impact ;”The Depp vs. Heard case will keep us busy for a long time,” predicts Bedera.