Johnny Depp, Amber Heard and the dystopian social media carnival

By Mehak Bajpai

The verdict is in. A US jury on Wednesday ruled that Johnny Depp was defamed by Amber Heard through her op-ed in the Washington Post titled “I spoke up against sexual violence, and faced our culture’s wrath.” Depp had also alleged that the op-ed made him lose significant movie roles and be ostracised in Hollywood. He claimed that his children and other family members were impacted because of these allegations against him. Against his claim, Amber Heard had filed a 100-million-dollar defamation counterclaim stating that Depp, through his lawyer Adam Waldman’s statements, caused her irreparable loss in terms of movie roles and constant cyber trolling that mentally impacted her.

A lot has been said about this multi-million-dollar celebrity defamation suit that we can realistically follow. Most of us know about this trial through Twitter and Instagram reels, either celebrating Camille Vasquez (one of Johnny Depp’s attorneys) or memes on Amber Heard. The algorithm on these social media websites made it impossible for us to ignore this trial. They grabbed our attention with salacious headlines, made for immediate gratification of our desire to peek into the lives of the rich white celebrities; almost as if it was a reality tv show with weekly episodes.

More importantly, as Monica Lewinsky notes in her article in the Vanity Fair “We are all guilty”, this deluge of offensive content against Amber Heard on social media remarkably outweighed the one against Depp. I would go as far as to say that it outweighed the hate against any other man that was ever accused of sexual abuse online. Is it then, too far-fetched to say that for all of us sitting in our homes, this was not about believing Johnny Depp, but ruining Amber Heard?

This social media trial mirrors our deepest, most internalised feelings about women who allege sexual assault, to the effect that it has become a justified outlet to spew the most brutal, misogynistic vitriol against them. Heard’s article talks about facing the culture’s wrath for speaking up against abuse and that gives almost a sad, poetic irony to this entire social media spectacle.

Nobody knows what actually went down in that relationship and nobody will ever know, but women have lived through a lot of witch hunts since the dawn of humanity to know for sure that they will never be believed again. And this is even before Johnny Depp won. Just a casual search on Twitter and you will find that Amber Heard has become an entirely dehumanised ‘object’ for all the hatred people have towards women, but could never openly say those things before this trial.

Proving sexual assault, domestic abuse and other grave violations that we’re subjected to, in the court of law, has always been an uphill task. We don’t trust survivors in general; we doubt their credibility. The fact that a woman was cruelly trolled on social media for alleging abuse makes it even harder. It was never about who you believed more, but about the empathy, and humanity that we seem to have forgotten. We can choose to disbelieve someone, but we must not be complicit in the erasure of the entire discourse on the #metoo movement while doing so.

We had an entire movement a few years ago to make sure we treat people with kindness when they come forward with their claims of abuse and not villainise them, so why are we backtracking again in 2022?

Re-victimisation of victims is a major issue in cases like sexual abuse, domestic violence etc. When people don’t listen to the victims, it makes it less likely that others will come forward. When people cyberbully them for simply alleging abuse, it makes it impossible for anyone else to come forward. For example, one of the most striking parts of this televised trial was the microanalysis of Amber Heard’s body language, and her expressions on some popular YouTube channels by psychologists and body language experts, and surprisingly, less of all this for Depp.

These channels received millions of views for this. This tells me that we had reached a verdict long before we started this trial, and that is very telling of our culture of disbelief in women. And this should scare all of us!

Regardless of how we feel about these celebrities (our parasocial relationship with celebrities is toxic anyway), this trial should not make us forget that women victims of abuse are often, ferociously and conceitedly ruined for the sake of powerful men, just out of spite. It should not make us forget that to this day, there are more sexual assaults and underreported domestic abuse incidents against women than instances of false accusations. While advocating for procedural reforms to combat false accusations is a welcome step, calling women liars and trolling their lived experiences for speaking up against violence will only have repercussions for women who are less powerful than Heard.

It is a possibility that non-famous domestic violence victims will be subsequently subject to similar fanatical scrutiny in their communities, except that there would be no one standing up for them. This is not about being “pro-Heard” or “pro-Depp”. This is a defining moment to help us critically think about the collateral damage public trials on sensitive issues bring forth and the reparations we must make to restore the decades of hard work people put into speaking up against injustice.

Mehak is a Research scholar at National Law University, Delhi. She is also a Research Associate for the Committee for Criminal Law Reforms, 2020. She has previously worked with NHRC on their project on sexual harassment and continue to work for other government research projects.

Views are personal.

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