The Discourse Around Johnny Depp’s Defamation Lawsuit is Just *Overrun* With Misinformation

There's no simple, tidy narrative here—but that's not stopping the internet from trying to create one.

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Stacy Lee Kong

Apr 29 2022

13 mins read

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Image: Shutterstock

Content warning: this newsletter contains references to intimate partner violence. 

I can tell you exactly when I realized this week’s newsletter was going to be about Johnny Depp, Amber Heard and the way we’re all talking about his defamation lawsuit against her. It was Wednesday, and I was scrolling through my followers on TikTok when an influencer I usually really like came up on my feed. At first, I thought she was delivering a jokey inspiring quote, but it was actually not that at all: “In a world where you can be anyone and anything… don’t be Amber Heard,” she said, with a bit of a smirk. The caption? “May she rot 😊”

Depp is seeking US$50 million in damages from Heard over a 2018 Washington Post op-ed about her experience with intimate partner violence (IPV). He’s saying the editorial was defamatory even though she didn’t name him because it includes the line, “two years ago, I became a public figure representing domestic abuse,” and she had previously made public accusations of abuse against him. She’s counter-suing for US$100 million. The trial kicked off on April 12, and the actors' strategy quickly became clear: in her defence, Heard's lawyers are trying to show that he did abuse her because you can't defame someone by telling the truth, while Depp's team is responding by trying to show that she actually abused him. Unsurprisingly, the trial has become the centre of a media firestorm—and that's why it feels like everyone has been talking about them incessantly for two weeks now.

And I do mean incessantly. That influencer is far from the only content creator who’s mining the trial for content, almost all of them #TeamDepp. And that’s not even counting his stans, who are fighting what they see as the good fight in every comment section and Twitter feed, or the bevy of mainstream publications that are zealously covering the trial. But here’s a weird thing I’ve noticed: these conversations often seem divorced from reality, or at least from history, including what happened at Depp’s previous libel lawsuit against U.K. tabloid The Sun (he lost) and his long history of violent behaviour. And that’s not a harmless oversight.

‎Before we go on, let’s be clear: People of all genders can be abused, and people of all genders can be abusers. Just as importantly, perpetrators of abuse can also experience abuse. The intention of this newsletter isn’t to ‘side’ with either Depp or Heard. It’s to draw attention to the ways misinformation has infiltrated this discourse, raise questions about how we as a society are talking about abuse right now—and think about what that could mean for real-life victims of abuse.

You can’t talk about this trial without talking about social media

A lot of the pop-cultural critique I’ve read about this trial focuses on the regular people who are talking about it on social media, and for good reason. Whether they’re stans or they’re just casual observers who got sucked into the ‘drama,’ non-professionals are dominating this discourse. On TikTok, where most of the content creation seems to be happening, the #justiceforjohnnydepp hashtag has 5.4 billion views and dozens of variations, some of them with views in the millions themselves. On Twitter, the trial has been an almost daily trending topic since testimony began. And YouTube is offering up both livestreams of the trial and user-generated clip compilations. Social media users are combing through court transcripts and obsessively watching the live stream, then heading to these platforms to post memes and reaction videos focused on details plucked from that day’s testimony.

‎They’re hyper-focused on Depp and Heard’s facial expressions, the clothes they’re wearing and every instance of incompetence, real or imagined, on the part of Heard’s legal team. They often conflate Depp with his most famous characters. And they don’t seem to grasp that their observations have little to do with the eventual outcome of the trial. As Mel magazine senior staff writer Miles Klee pointed out this week, “they view this lawsuit in terms of performance, not evidence. Should Depp be a compelling enough presence, they seem to believe, the ruling will swing his way. Theatrical control is, of course, an element of legal arguments and examinations, particularly where two actors are involved. Yet Depp’s audience chooses to focus on furtive gestures so distant from the technical merits of his case as to have no bearing on the outcome. It’s the only way they have to engage with the drama without facing the likelihood that when all is said and done, Heard and Depp will be right where they were at the outset, mutually disgraced and exhausted.”

‎(It is likely that’s exactly where we’ll end up, btw; it’s very difficult to prove defamation, and legal experts say this case is an “uphill battle” for Depp. What’s more, it’s noteworthy that when he sued The Sun for libel after it referred to him as a “wife-beater,” the judge found that 12 of the 14 allegations had been proven “to the civil standard.” While that trial doesn’t set a precedent for this one, it seems like much of the evidence being presented in court now was also presented then, so I think it’s reasonable to wonder if the jury in this trial will interpret it differently.)

If you want to know why it seems like social media is 100% pro-Depp, you have to understand internet culture and fandom

Fandom is certainly part of this—in Gawker, writer Fran Hoepfner points to fannish impulse, most often seen in online spaces like LiveJournal and Tumblr, to ‘woobify’ “dark, brooding male figure[s]” like Severus Snape and Loki, turning textual villains into misunderstood bad boys with hearts of gold who just need the love of a good partner. “That this would eventually cross over into a real-life scenario – especially regarding someone often seen in properties that have their own fandoms—is unsurprising,” she says. “This, in tandem with the platform’s ability to make everything a true crime investigation, has allowed TikTok, more than Twitter, more than the courthouse in Virginia, to be a place of mounting evidence, of argument, of long-winded pleas for justice and righteousness.”

But it would be demeaning to characterize the pro-Depp movement as the product of misguided lust. As Hoepfner notes, “perusing the #justiceforjohnnydepp tag doesn’t suggest that this is a movement driven by an overwhelming contrarian take on the nature of intimate partner violence. These are not people who clamor against social justice warriors. These are people who are inclined to believe abuse allegations and who use terms like ‘gaslighting.’”

In fact, if there’s one tiny silver lining to this case, it’s that these conversations may be helping to normalize the reality that men can also be victims of IPV. According to Statistics Canada’s most recent report on family violence in Canada, while the majority of victims (79%) are women and the perpetrators are most commonly men, the rate of police-reported IPV against men is on the rise. In 2019, when all intimate partner violence was up 6% from the previous year, there was a larger increase for men than for women (+10% versus +5%). And since we’re talking about stats on police-reported crimes, it’s likely the numbers are much higher. That applies to men of all sexualities. A 2018 review of literature published in Frontiers of Psychology found that “life-time prevalence of IPV in LGB couples appeared to be similar to or higher than in heterosexual ones… 37.3% of bisexual men and 26.0% of homosexual men experienced IPV during their life, while 29.0% of heterosexual men experienced IPV.” Trans people in particular experience extremely high rates of IPV. As a 2010 report on trans people’s experiences of IPV by LGBT Youth Scotland and the Equality Network notes, “80% of respondents stated that they had experienced emotionally, sexually or physically abusive behaviour by a partner or ex-partner.”

‎So, the problem is not that pro-Depp social media users say they’re trying to reduce the stigma for male victims of IPV. It’s how they’re doing it—by demonizing Heard, accusing her of lying about her abuse and painting her as mentally ill or unhinged, all common tactics that have been used to discredit victims of abuse in the past. In the process, they’re lending credibility to the deeply damaging, socially entrenched idea that only ‘perfect’ victims should be believed and taken seriously.  (It’s also worth questioning if their concern extends to non-celebrity male victims of IPV, too, or if it’s exclusively reserved for Depp.)

The way some entertainment media have been covering this trial is deeply irresponsible

But we shouldn’t let mainstream media off the hook here. For starters, the fact that the case is being live-streamed as if it were a courtroom drama only encourages the public to understand this trial as entertainment, making it easier to look for narratives and react to dramatic moments—and harder to remember that we’re talking about what sounds like the extremely scary and profoundly sad experiences of two real people.

‎I’ve also found it quite surprising how little context entertainment outlets are including in their coverage. Everyone from eTalk to Yahoo to Radar has published articles about the “bombshells” revealed in each day’s testimony, which only adds to the feeling that we’re consuming content meant to entertain. More importantly, these aren’t bombshells at all; the vast majority of what we’ve heard from Depp’s testimony (Heard has yet to take the stand) has already been extensively reported. Yes, that includes his allegation that Heard or one of her friends defecated in their bed, his statement that he went from “Cinderella to Quasimodo” after Heard’s abuse allegations became public and his claim that Heard threw a bottle of vodka at him, severing the tip of his finger when it shattered. More details that were already public knowledge thanks to the 2020 trial and/or media coverage around, or even preceding, their split: his disturbingly violent texts about Heard to actor Paul Bettany, drug and alcohol abuse and vast financial losses, not to mention a former assistant’s allegation that Heard misrepresented the assistant’s story of sexual assault as her own. We even knew about Heard’s admission that she hit him. (A caveat: some experts say "mutual abuse" or "reactive abuse" aren't real things and what Heard was describing was actually self-defence.)

I’d argue that it’s important for readers who may not have been following this case for years to know that the judge in Depp’s 2020 libel lawsuit wasn’t swayed by any of this testimony. He found it “highly unlikely” that Heard had left feces in the couple’s bed and “did not accept Heard had been responsible for the severed fingertip through throwing a vodka bottle at Depp. He [did accept that] Heard had been the victim of ‘sustained and multiple assaults,’” according to the Guardian. It might even be useful for readers to understand that Heard describes abusive incidents that happened when Depp was drunk or high—and that he has a history of getting violent when drunk or high dating back to 1989.

And this lack of context isn’t just a problem in coverage of the allegations themselves. Last week, Milani Cosmetics released a TikTok that ‘debunked’ Heard’s lawyer’s claim that she had used its Conceal & Perfect All In One Correcting Kit to cover her bruises during their marriage. The ickiness of a cosmetics brand using allegations of IPV as inspiration for viral content aside, it was frustrating to see so many news stories parrot Milani’s snarky tone without mentioning one key fact: Heard’s lawyer used the palette as an example, but she “did not claim that the specific brand or kit was the very one used by the actress,” according to Newsweek’s fact-check.

‎W‎e’ve seen this problem many times in different situations: When journalists publish an article that's 'just the facts' without relevant context, the story may be technically accurate, but it won’t tell the full truth. And that’s how misinformation flourishes.

This isn’t a simple narrative—and we’d all be better off if we stopped trying to make it one

I think it’s probably impossible for people not to form an opinion about what happened in Depp and Heard’s relationship, especially with all the salacious details that trend after every day of testimony. But, I don’t think that opinion has to be either pro-Depp or pro-Heard.

Actually, it probably shouldn’t be one or the other. As writer and sexual assault prevention specialist Nylah Burton wrote in Bitch about Depp’s 2020 libel trial, “people seem compelled to take sides that are informed by their own perspectives and biases, discrediting one narrative completely in favor of the other. But it’s critical to resist that societal instinct to minimize, demonize or disregard either of these accounts… When we give into the urge to see abuse as a binary—one abuser, one victim—we make our communities, our families and our loved ones less safe. We send the message that we won’t listen to their stories, empathize with their pain and meet their needs. In this way, Depp and Heard’s case can help us examine the ways we cling to myths of ‘the perfect victim’ and ‘the typical abuser’ to the detriment of all abuse survivors. By accepting that perpetrators of abuse are often victims as well, we can better understand and address the dynamics of interpersonal violence.”

So much of the discourse about this trial is really just people trying to force Depp and Heard into tidy little boxes so they don’t have to feel conflicted or unsure about where they stand. But this is a messy, toxic and unhappy situation where no one actually wins. At the very least, we should be taking care in the way we talk about this case because the stakes are high if we get it wrong. (The demonization of Amber Heard will very quickly be used to undermine other abuse victims’ stories, if it hasn't already, especially if they don’t behave the way we think they should.)

But trying to force this into a simple storybook narrative? That isn’t helping anybody.


And Did You Hear About…

Critic Craig Jenkins’ retrospective analysis of what made Black-ish work—and why the ways it would fail were evident from the beginning.

This sad—but very good—essay on heaven, mac and cheese and psychics.

Go Fug Yourself looking back at the 2001 Met Gala. It was a very different time!!!

The behind-the-scenes drama at early anti-racist IG account No White Saviours. (The white co-founder of the organization is trying to force the Black co-founder out. 

What Turning Red got wrong about fandom in 2002.

Bonus: The woman who pretends to be her nonna on TikTok. (Also sometimes her nonno and her Aunty Maria.)

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Johnny Depp
Amber Heard