The Depp-Heard trial is bringing out the internet's cruelest tendencies
The online reaction to the trial — and specifically to Heard’s testimony — is depressing proof that you’re all horrible people.
Chris Rock joked about her. Lance Bass is doing an impression of her. The Duolingo App is leaving snide comments on TikTok about her. SNL is parodying it all. The details of the Depp v. Heard trial are harrowing and multi-tentacled, but according to much of the internet, Amber Heard and her allegations of abuse against Johnny Depp are not simply false — they’re fodder for hilarious content.
Since its start, the Depp v. Heard defamation trial has been a shitshow, with harrowing accounts of abuse from both sides being churned into an endless stream of memes — a process that not only decontextualizes and blurs the truth to the public, but also has made us nihilistic and misinformed about abuse. This began at the start of their messy divorce a few years ago, but has gotten worse amid both celebrities’ time on the stand.
You’d be hard-pressed to go on any major social media platform and avoid content around the trial, and the consistent theme in almost all of it is the nitpicking and mocking of Heard: from her outfits and mannerisms to her detailed, horrifying accounts of the abuse she says she suffered. Depp, of course, has claimed accounts of the frightening abuse he suffered at the hands of Heard, with his own evidence to boot. But it is remarkable how differently the internet has treated both sides’ time on the stand — laughing at Depp’s jokes and composure while scrutinizing and snickering at the way Heard laughs or cries or what direction she looks in the courtroom.
To be clear, the point here is not to discredit one side or the other. If anything, the trial only continues to solidify the sense that this was a deeply troubled and volatile relationship that was destructive at best, violent and abusive at worst, likely on both sides. Regardless of where you stand on the Depp v. Heard trial, what the apparatus of online content has done to our public perception of Heard and her allegations and the disproportionate lengths to which the internet has gone to emphasize its disbelief of her should be seriously disconcerting.
Amid the dozens of instances being pored over in the trial — events that occurred over the course of many years — it feels safe to say that the vast majority of people do not have even a broad understanding of the evidence at play. (This fact in itself is in no way a criticism — it’s reasonable and expected that most of the public are not privy to the details of what is being revealed across several weeks of court proceedings.) It is also safe to say that most would not find it generally normal or appropriate to publicly condemn, let alone joke about a multi-faceted string of abuse allegations that took place across several years and that a U.K. high court already ruled were largely true.
So then why has everyone so gleefully rallied around ridiculing one side amid a very messy trial that has yet to even introduce witnesses from Heard’s team? Why has the internet so unanimously decided upon a cynical and cavalier dismissal and belittling of Heard’s alleged victimhood? It is not because everyone has come to a measured conclusion about her credibility — again, most people simply are not rifling through all the layers of trial evidence. One obvious answer is we’re still deeply conditioned to pounce on, pick apart, ridicule, and condemn female survivors and their accounts. But the other answer to the Heard hate is stealthier, and a frightening example of how the flow of information online can be weaponized into creating ugly mainstream consensus, quietly sliding us into a kind of demented brain fog.
Most of the early content online about the trial was transparently pushed by Depp’s horde of diehard supporters: clips and memes were almost invariably signed off by #JusticeforJohnnyDepp accounts. (Currently, Depp’s online fandom has resulted in a cult following around his lawyer, Camila Vasquez.) With the flattening force of the internet, which thrives on contextless polarization and outrage, this early flood of pro-Depp content became widespread enough to needle its way into the near-universal stance. The momentum only gained traction with the actor’s time on the stand — which had the crucial benefit of coming before Heard’s turn — to the point that the larger public and thus the online content machine was sucked into a fixation on Heard as a manipulator so vile that she deserved to not only be doubted but openly mocked.
By now, with Heard on the stand, the online pendulum has gathered such full force, and the consensus has become so entrenched, that we’ve gone past the point of side-taking and simply see the trial and Heard-bashing as a crass form of entertainment. It is truly batshit that a corporate brand’s TikTok account would feel comfortable making a quip about Heard on the app.
There exists a messy truth to this trial and to what occurred in this relationship, but the unhinged public reaction has nothing to do with it. It is one of the bleaker and most succinct examples in recent memory of a trite but evergreen truth: the internet has really, truly rotted our brains. “This is so entertaining,” reads one of the top comments on a viral NBCNews TikTok clip of Heard on the stand. “I bet they’re gonna make a movie about it in the future.”