If you’ve opened TikTok in the last two weeks, you’ll have struggled to escape commentary or clips from the defamation trial brought by Johnny Depp against his ex-wife Amber Heard in a Virginia courtroom.
The trial, over an opinion piece Heard wrote for the Washington Post in 2018 in which Depp claims she defamed him, has become unavoidable on TikTok. There are regular updates from the courtroom from both established news outlets on the app and rank-and-file users clipping key moments and adding their own opinions. Videos tagged with the hashtag #johnnydepp have 11.3 billion views, with the #justiceforjohnnydepp hashtag collecting 5.6 billion views.
Despite no shortage of news happening around the world, the Depp-Heard trial seems to dominate TikTok—with most videos supporting Depp and denigrating Heard. It all begs the question: why?
TikTok representatives declined to speak for this story. But plenty of those who monitor the app have theories as to why videos supporting Depp have taken over TikTok.
“TikTok is always a great amplifier for cultural moments,” says Abbie Richards, a research fellow at the Accelerationist Research Consortium and a mis- and disinformation researcher who specializes in how content travels on TikTok. “If you engage with one video about the topic, the algorithm learns that you like it and will continue to feed you similar—or even related—videos.”
Like traditional media, TikTok has been overwhelmed with footage from and coverage of the trial. Several news networks have hosted livestreams within the app covering what unfolds each day in the courtroom, which increases awareness of and engagement with the trial. That triggers a gold rush for other creators to participate in a conversation that appears to be dominating the app, creating a flywheel of more content. One of the key commodities on TikTok is the virality of its memes: users see a particular type of video, or a certain piece of audio, and produce something similar in order to try and capitalize on its popularity. In this instance, the trial itself has become a meme. “Whether you are part of Depp’s fanbase or not, the rush to join the conversation about Depp is highly motivated by algorithmic amplification and the golden ticket to the For You page,” says Tom Divon, visual communication researcher at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
There’s also the fact that Depp is highly beloved by his digital fanbase, not least because of his role in the Harry Potter and Pirates of the Caribbean franchises. While the #justiceforjohnnydepp hashtag is closing in on 6 billion views, #justiceforamberheard is limping along at 21 million. “What we’re seeing at play in the anger against Amber Heard has a couple of layers,” says Georgie Carroll, an Australian academic who studies the relationship between online creators and their audience. “This is not something that’s representative of all fans or fandom, but we do always see a certain level of dislike and distrust levelled against the partners of popular male celebrities. Fans often think a female partner isn’t ‘good enough’ for their favourite celebrity, or hold on to a far-off hope that it should actually be them.”
Besides the viral momentum of a live news event that many feel they have a stake in, featuring highly-recognizable celebrities with devoted fanbases, the Depp-Heard trial also taps into a third accelerant to guarantee its success: cybersleuthing TikTok. While the idea of amateur sleuths using the internet to collaborate on research projects has been around for years, the movement has been given an impetus by the snackable, immersive nature of TikTok videos. Perhaps most famously, TikTok users claim credit for helping discover the body of van-life influencer Gabby Petito after she disappeared in August 2021. TikTok sleuths pored over available open-source evidence, claiming that Petito’s fiancé Brian Laundrie was responsible for her murder.
A similar impetus drove TikTok’s crowdsourced investigation of West End Caleb, a New York furniture designer alleged to have ghosted several women—and appears to be in part responsible for perpetuating content around the Depp-Heard trial. “The phenomenon of West Elm Caleb wasn’t just that a few girls posted about their experiences with him. It was the snowballing of those posts, then posts about it, then memes, then meta memes about the memes, then articles and discourse off the app,” says Richards. “The thing spirals into a massive cultural moment.”
That’s happening around the current trial, too. Users are exchanging pet theories that revolve around someone who looks like Heard’s attorney, Elaine Bredhehoft, appearing in the crowd at a red carpet event for Depp’s 2013 movie The Lone Ranger. A video outlining the theory, which has nearly 15 million views on TikTok, has been shared 42,000 times. It’s just one of many recapping the trial.
The scale of content is understandable, says Carroll—as is the passion felt by both individuals’ fanbases. “When a celebrity is involved in a controversy—regardless of whether something is alleged or proven—our modern social media sphere means there’s immediately an immense pressure to renounce any affection you ever held for them,” she says. Yet as we’re seeing, many are instead choosing to double down on their love of Depp, convinced that the course of the trial will demonstrate their favorite actor’s innocence. With several weeks remaining until it concludes, TikTok is likely to continue reverberating with pro-Depp, anti-Heard content.
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