“People want to kill me, and they tell me so every day,” an emotional Amber Heard told jurors as she gave evidence for a final time towards the end of Johnny Depp’s libel trial against her. “People want to put my baby in the microwave – and they tell me that.”
Whatever the outcome of this libel trial, whatever you believe about what Depp or Heard may or may not have lied about when it comes to who hit who and who started what, the actress’s description of a “campaign” against her that is echoed every day on social media – that she is “harassed, humiliated, threatened every single day” – is undeniable.
“I receive hundreds of death threats regularly if not daily since this trial has started, people mocking my testimony about being assaulted,” she told the court.
The contents of Heard’s private messages don’t need to be given oxygen for us to know this – the abuse is public, misogyny en masse, neatly catalogued by #AmberTurd hashtags (and even T-shirts).
Meanwhile, Depp fans dressed up as Captain Jack Sparrow outside court and #JusticeForJohnnyDepp prevails online; the hashtag has reportedly garnered billions of views on TikTok, compared with a few million for #IStandWithAmberHeard. And more than 740,000 people have signed an online petition calling for him to return to his role in the Pirates Of The Caribbean franchise.
The vitriol runs deep. Even I have received abusive messages for just reporting on the six-week trial, a small personal example of the lack of reason demonstrated in the extreme and impassioned band of Depp supporters.
Of course, lots of people quietly believe Depp. And lots quietly believe Heard. And most just don’t know what to make of this case, or much care. But for some who have sided with Depp – online at least – the loyalty can be expressed in the most vicious of ways.
And for Depp, this case is about winning the Twitter wars as much as about winning in the courtroom, according to Dr Ann Olivarius, an American-British lawyer who specialises in cases of civil litigation, sexual discrimination and sexual harassment, assault, and abuse.
The jury is out on whether his reputation in the industry is irreparably damaged, but in the court of public opinion he appears to be victorious – if those with the loudest voices are to be heeded.
‘This is a circus’
“Why would a person who loses profoundly in the great country of Britain go to America to bring a case that’s essentially the same case?” Olivarius told Sky News, referencing Depp’s unsuccessful High Court case against The Sun in 2020.
“It’s all about social media. For him, this is a circus. It is embarrassing as a lawyer to see how this is playing out. It’s more humiliation of her, more degradation. And you can see on the Twitter war, which is what this really is about…
“Depp’s lawyers are using a tremendous amount of resource to get a message across that she’s a broken woman, she’s unstable, she’s a psychopath, she’s untrustworthy…
“There are 9.8 billion supporters of Johnny Depp on Twitter… there are 3.6 million supporters for Amber Heard. And the hashtags are, for instance, #AmberHeardIsAPsychopath. #AmberHeardIsALiar. These are the things that are put out on Amber Heard questioning her mental health, questioning whether she is a borderline personality. None of this is directed towards Johnny Depp.”
Heard TikTok supporter: ‘I wanted to help put an end to the vitriol’
The trial has captured the interest of millions online, and has prompted some to create social media accounts solely dedicated to sharing content in support of either celebrity.
On TikTok, Instagram and Twitter, pro-Depp and pro-Heard accounts have amassed hundreds of thousands of followers and produced videos that have been viewed millions of times.
Depp fans are easy to find, but those supporting the actress are trickier, as there are nowhere near as many. One Heard supporter I did find is based in Australia and runs a TikTok account with more than 25,000 followers dedicated to sharing content.
Their page largely consists of clips from the televised trial with text emblazoned over the top, as well as screenshots of news articles and links to court documents; the most popular video on the page has been viewed more than three million times.
The account owner told me they created it in September last year to address what they call a “bombardment of pro-Depp and anti-Heard videos” on their TikTok “For You” page. They say they are by no means a Heard superfan and only knew of her before the trial through her proximity to Depp.
“I was more of a fan of Depp,” they said. “But after the allegations in 2016 came out, that was that for me. I thought that creating an account would help combat a lot of the misinformation I saw, and might also help put an end to the vitriol directed towards Heard.”
‘Depp owes his fans a cheque’
Online threats, although sinister, are perhaps easier to dismiss as the work of angry Twitter trolls than the memes and mocking. The vast majority of this content will likely have been created and shared by younger social media users, rather than the 30, 40, 50-something die-hard fans who grew up with Depp in the ’80s and ’90s.
Perhaps many of these are the very same users who were urging us to #BeKind not so long ago. One user posting a joke may not consider how the cumulative effect of thousands might make an impact.
US entertainment reporter Ronse Esangbedo says the pro-Depp campaign has had an impact: “Depp’s fanbase has acted as his external PR arm, #JusticeForJohnnyDepp has been really popular on Twitter… creating sympathy for Johnny Depp, so I think he owes them a cheque or two.
“It’s hard to explain why people are the way they are when it comes to adulation of certain celebrities, it’s not always reasonable, it doesn’t always make sense.”
Celebrity brand expert Jeetendr Sehdev says the case, and the reaction to it, could have a negative impact on victims of domestic violence and their willingness to speak out. “We’ve seen that Amber Heard is very much a victim in this, and we have to believe victims when they say they’re being abused – one of the discussions has been why victims don’t speak up because they’re often not being believed, so I do think we need to make that shift.”
You don’t need to believe Heard or like her to see that online abuse is disturbing. Imagine actually taking the time to send someone a message telling them you want to microwave their baby?
Depp may be winning in the online court of public opinion. But whatever the verdicts, or how much money is awarded in damages, it’s hard to imagine the end of this being a victory for anyone.