It is arguably the civil trial of the century, one filled with extraordinary details and much dirty laundry. Actor Johnny Depp is suing his ex-wife Amber Heard for $50 million over a 2018 op-ed she wrote for The Washington Post, which chronicled her experiences as a domestic abuse survivor. While Depp was never mentioned by name, his lawyers contend that it was obvious who Heard referred to in the piece, and that the article damaged Depp’s career and reputation.
Depp has testified that Disney dropped him from the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise just days after the story hit, and that he lost upwards of $22.5 million to reprise his role as Captain Jack Sparrow.
In response, Heard, who is also an actor, has filed a $100 million countersuit – and her legal team has alleged that she was defamed when Depp and his lawyers called her allegations false!
The he-said, she-said drama has been widely followed, as the case has been streaming live on both Court TV and Law & Crime. It has also been closely followed on social media, and just this week a variety of hashtags related to the case have been trending, including #JusticeForJohnny, #AmberHeardIsAPsycopath, #AmberHeardIsInnocent and #IStandWithAmberHeard.
It is often said, especially in the world of entertainment, there is no such thing as “bad publicity,” but given the attention this case has garnered that may not be true.
“The Depp vs Heard trial is the latest example of how social media has become the new barometer of public opinion that makes or breaks careers,” explained Anthony Silard, Ph.D., associate professor of leadership and the director of the Center for Sustainable Leadership at Luiss Business School in Rome.
“Just type #JusticeforJohnny or #IStandwithAmberHeard into Twitter for a heaping serving of vitriol from both sides,” said Silard. “This social-media-abetted polarization may seem entertaining at first glance, but it’s actually a dystopian example of how social media is tearing us apart as a society. Whether it’s mask wearing, Trump vs. Biden, NFL players taking a knee during the national anthem or the Slap Heard Around the World, social media has become the new arbiter of right and wrong.”
Silard warned that social media has been a factor in how the level of polarization in the U.S. has reached an unprecedented level.
“Now that our experience of other people with views different from our own has been whittled down to brief text missives read on social media, as recent research has discovered we no longer see members of the opposition as even possessing the levels of thinking and feeling we attribute to human beings,” Silard continued.
Following The Case On Social Media
Even as the courtroom drama can be streamed daily, many people aren’t bothering to actually watch. Instead, it is followed by sound bites, clips and memes. That certainly is impacting the court of public opinion.
“The Depp and Heard case is incredibly complicated, yet has still been distilled into short, TikTok-sized segments that are easy to digest but can often be inaccurate or taken out of context. By watching a few posts, TikTok and other social media platforms will continue to serve the user similar content, solidifying a one-sided impression of the happenings in the trial,” said Courtney Pade, clinical assistant professor of communication and assistant director of the Masters of Communication Management Program at USC.
“People on social media are driven to get the rewards or affirmation that exist in getting likes and views,” added Colin Campbell, assistant professor of marketing at the Knauss School of Business at the University of San Diego. “This makes influencers and consumers motivated to post about topics – like this trial – that they know others are interested in and will react to. This effect amplifies the time and attention that is devoted to content that is deemed ‘spicy.'”
Social media isn’t the best way to follow a trial, which can be inherently complex and often very nuanced.
“Social media attention spans are short. This results in very short clips, or even remixes of clips, of trials being posted that likely don’t convey the full context a statement is made in. As we’ve seen, this can be damaging for both Heard and Depp,” said Campbell. “My research on consumer generated content finds that people on social media love humor, especially irony. So any information that runs counter to what a person may have said before or their public image is ripe to be turned into a meme.”
This case has also proven that there is such a thing as bad press, especially in the days of social media, and there is unlikely to be any winner – regardless of the outcome.
“While social media during this case has leaned heavily in Depp’s favor, the question is whether this sentiment is reflected in the jury or, instead, a distorted view due to prolific content creators,” said Pade. “Both actors know that the court of public opinion is more important to their careers than the outcome of the trial and are using it as a mechanism for visual storytelling. But, this consumption via social media also allows viewers to avoid more nuanced and difficult discussions around domestic abuse.”