Around mid-April of this year, it was nearly impossible to open TikTok (or have a conversation with most people) without a mention of the Johnny Depp and Amber Heard defamation trial. It was a case that featured two Hollywood stars who shared some messy marital history that led to an even messier divorce—and unlike most legal snafus of that caliber, it was televised for the entire world to see. And scrutinize. And turn into viral content.
The defamation trial revolved around an article that Amber wrote for the Washington Post in 2018 where she spoke about being a sexual violence survivor. Without naming her abuser, she shared details that made Depp identifiable, giving some hints about what occurred during the couple’s two-year-long marriage.
Depp in turn filed a $50 million lawsuit against her in 2019, resulting in daily snippets of the trial going viral on TikTok three years later. Clips from the courtroom, stitches reacting to what both sides said and reenactments racked up some impressive (and somewhat revealing) views on the app. The hashtag #JohnnyDepp has over 33 billion views on TikTok while #AmberHeard has only 19 billion; #AmberTurd has 4.4 billion views.
It was rather clear from the beginning of the trial—and those early social media posts—that the public was largely in support of Depp. Oftentimes, videos would mock Heard’s tearful reactions, picking apart her actions and reactions and pointing out what they considered to be inconsistencies in her behavior (some going so far as to accuse her of using cocaine while on the witness stand). TikTokker @toktyktyktok made a video satirizing one of Heard’s difficult testimonies, turning it into a dramatized version that poked fun at her abuse. It racked up 29.2K likes.
Even brands were weighing in to support Depp, like Milani Cosmetics who accused Heard of lying after she mentioned one of their products in the trial. And you better believe lawyers were weighing in with their expert opinion, including @jordanismylawyer, who garnered thousands of views on multiple videos she created during the three-month trial.
On June 1st, the trial ended and the jury came to a verdict: They unanimously agreed that Heard had defamed Depp. The jury awarded him $5 million in punitive damages, plus $10 million in compensatory damages. Heard was awarded $2 million for compensatory damages but didn’t receive a penny for punitive damages. Just five days after his victory, Depp joined TikTok. He clearly had some pull on the app—but to a surprising degree. Within 24 hours of posting his first video, in which he thanks his “most treasured, loyal and unwavering supporters,” Depp had over 10 million followers. The video itself racked up 12.9 million likes, continuing to cement his powerful influence over the app’s users.
Whereas social media was once viewed as a frivolous throwaway or something to kill the time, in 2022 its cultural implications are becoming more and more clear. Especially when it comes to how the public perceives issues like domestic violence, character defamation and abuse. The Johnny Depp vs. Amber Heard case would not have likely blown up if it were not for the case being televised and easily available for public consumption. Obviously not everyone was invested in watching the entirety of the trial, especially as it was aired for hours during the work week. But there was a quick workaround: The highlight reels were easily accessible on TikTok. And they were going viral, disseminating those views and opinions to millions of users. But those clips were only snippets of the full story, creating a biased dialog around the legal case that was so ubiquitous, it felt impossible to ignore.
So, is it possible that if those early viral videos supported Heard, the public’s opinion might’ve been different? It’s pretty likely. Especially considering what’s happened since early August of this year, when over 6,000 pre-trial documents were unsealed, revealing even more about the devastating domestic violence that she was a victim of. The files, which Depp’s supporters paid to be unsealed, actually painted Heard in a much better light—releasing a whole new wave of viral videos. This time, in her favor.