The Johnny Depp Amber Heard Verdict Doesn’t Matter After the Internet Made a Spectacle of Abuse

Online, the controversy has taken on a creepy bent, being streamed, memed, and opined on from TikTok to TV to Twitter, with fandoms developing for each “side.” One screenshot shows a post calling for viewers to “like” the post to support Depp, and “retweet” to support Heard, like it’s the Super Bowl or something. An army of bots, ad buys from people like Ben Shapiro, and online men’s rights activists have laundered the online frenzy, as reported by vox‘s Aja Romano.

While these “fandoms” have developed on both “sides,” Heard has disproportionately been the target of harassment. These extensive campaigns position Heard as the abuser and Depp as the victim, bringing up that Heard hit Depp back, or has a longer history of problematic behavior. Because Heard harmed Depp, her own alleged abuse experiences of her are being discounted — as if she’s automatically lying about being abused because she too has done harm. To be clear, I’m actually not really interested in calling Heard “good;” plenty remember, for example, a tweet Heard posted in 2018 that was reasonably called out as racist. I’m saying that Heard shouldn’t have to be good to be believed.

In the five years – count ’em, five – since #MeToo, we have barely developed any nuance. Ace New York Times opinion columnist Michelle Goldberg writes, the trial marks “the death of #MeToo,” because, while survivors enjoyed a short period of time when their stories were mostly seriously taken, Heard has now been dragged through the mud, ridiculed, and shamed, all for telling her alleged #MeToo story, seemingly because she’s an imperfect victim.

We’ve seen a similar reversing-course with anti-feminist intent before with Gamergate, a misogynistic right-wing backlash from online gamers to feminism in the early 2010s. But instead of being relegated to the deep corners of the internet, your younger sibling and parents and teachers are equally as likely to catch an inflammatory TikTok or Facebook post about the trial as anyone else. TikToks mocking Heard are all over the app, and SNL even did a skit about the abuse trial. Much of the content online is in favor of Depp, and best believe, people are seeing this stuff. In late April, buzzfeednews was already noting the outpouring of pro-Depp trial content; Kate Lindsay’s Embedded newsletter tracked it into the following weeks. Ace VICE‘s Anna Merlan writes, “There’s an enormous amount of attention and money to be gained from weighing in on this trial, which is why news outlets and would-be influencers alike are spending so much time commentating on it… The trial isn’t just being memeified—it’s turning into an opportunity for monetization and attention.”

This relationship conflict has been manufactured into a spectacle — and for some, there’s more to gain than just a paycheck.

I use the word “spectacle” very intentionally, citing the scholarship of internet studies scholar Safiya Noble, professor of Gender Studies and African American Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. In 2014, Noble wrote about the politics of spectacle in media depictions of murders of Black people, specifically following the death of Trayvon Martin and trial of George Zimmerman. Noble called out the online treatment of Martin as “meme-ification.” Noble was not only concerned with the ample negative coverage of Martin surrounding his killing him, which trafficked in longstanding antiblack stereotypes about criminality and Black masculinity; she was also wary of whether the celebratory coverage that she sought to memorialize him could come through where it really counted.

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