Amber Heard and Johnny Depp's 'Trial by TikTok'

By David Sillito
Media and Arts Correspondent

Published
Amber Heard and Johnny DeppImage source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Amber Heard and Johnny Depp at an event together in 2015

"It wasn't meant to be a viral video. I was, like, in my pyjamas."

Yasmine Bedward, a social media manager, was speaking from a house in Jamaica about the moment her interest in the libel case between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard 'blew up'.

"No one in my real life cared about my thoughts on this matter, so I turned to TikTok as we millennials do," said Ms Bedward, 30.

Her video comparing the two psychologists who gave evidence to the celebrity libel case has now topped 4.3 million views - just a fraction below the audience figure for the evening news programme on the US television network CBS.

It has definitely "blown up".

For another media comparison, the number of people who watch TV news each evening in America is about 18 million. The number of views of videos on TikTok with the hashtag #justiceforjohnnydepp is, at the time of this writing, about 18 billion.

The trial between two Hollywood actors turned warring ex-spouses is a reminder that when it comes to certain stories the idea of a mass media or a mainstream media dominated by a few major news organisations is beginning to look a bit creaky.

It is also, for some, deeply troubling.

There have been essentially two cases here - one decided by a jury and another by the public.

And from its early days, it was clear the overwhelming weight of online traffic was siding with Johnny Depp and deeply suspicious of Amber Heard.

The level of doubt in polling, and from even the most cursory search of social media, was in direct contradiction of the previous libel trial in the UK, where the allegations that Ms Heard suffered domestic abuse were judged to be "substantially true".

The way her testimony and character has been vilified in the US trial has alarmed domestic violence campaigners.

One question now is, what impact this verdict will have? Has Mr Depp saved his career and reputation with his victory in court?

But there is also another question in the parallel "trial by TikTok": Who has been generating all this online traffic - and what effect has it had?

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Johnny Depp waving to supporters outside the courthouse on 27 May

Cyabra, an Israeli firm that tracks online disinformation, has been following the Depp/Heard case for weeks. It analyses accounts that are spreading memes, videos and comments and tries to assess if they are genuine members of the public.

The results so far are startling, according to the company's spokesman, Rafi Mendelsohn.

"From the beginning of the trial, we were really interested to see what people are actually saying and how much of that conversation is driven by fake accounts.

"We were amazed to see that actually nearly 11% of the conversation around the trial was driven by fake accounts, which is a very high number," Mr Mendelsohn said.

"To give some context, at any given conversation on average, we see maybe around 3 to 5% of the conversation involving fake accounts," he added.

The best comparison for a conversation with this level of bot and fake accounts would be a big election campaign, he said.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Amber Heard has said she faces hundreds of death threats and online harassment each day

Cyabra is not alone in being interested in the level of pro-Depp online traffic.

Ms Heard raised the issue at the beginning of the trial, and throughout the case two Heard supporters, Cristina Taft and Daniel Brummit, have been regular visitors to the Virginia court house to voice concerns about what is happening online.

They have written a book together called Amber Heard and Bots.

"We saw new accounts and new postings in February and January," Ms Taft said, noting that in those two months, the Daily Mail news paper published two audio recordings of the former couple on YouTube.

"Then it went to Twitter and there are new accounts that… post like two days later," she said.

Image caption,
Heard supporter Cristina Taft at the Virginia courthouse

The problem is proving who is behind the fake accounts. All that can be said is that this pattern of fake accounts is increasingly spreading from politics to other parts of public life, according to Mr Mendelsohn of Cyabra.

"When we talk about disinformation and fake accounts, very often people think about big geopolitical campaigns, elections, politics generally," he said.

"But actually, what we're seeing is anyone with a global or a public reputation is a brand online, whether that's a celebrity or a consumer brand… there's an increase in the number of inauthentic profiles, but it's very difficult to know who is behind the fake accounts."

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Johnny Depp supporters taking photos outside the court on 27 May

But 11% fake still means that 89% are real. What is going on with this case?

The first obvious answer is the video feed of the courtroom.

And it's not just the courtroom. We are seeing reaction shots of the main participants. We have been able to watch facial expressions in a way that it is impossible for even people in the room, and we have seen some extraordinary moments unrelated to the main narrative.

The sight of the doorman, Alejandro Romero, delivering his testimony via Zoom from his car while vaping and then driving off is something new even for American justice. The look on Judge Penney Azacarte's face at the end of his testimony was proof enough. It is simply compelling to watch.

It is also a puzzle. Two people arguing a completely opposed view of events that took place behind closed doors means that millions can see the evidence for themselves and make up their own mind. We can all be detectives.

But there is another and perhaps more important thing going on here. Domestic violence is an issue that touches people's lives around the planet. This case has become symbolic.

For Haider Ali in Islamabad, Pakistan, this is personal. The 27-year-old designer, whose commentary on the trial on YouTube has attracted millions of views, said he had experienced violence and identifies with what Mr Depp claims he had faced.

"I was browsing Twitter and I saw a live feed, watched it a few minutes and realised that there were a lot of things I could relate to when I heard Johnny Depp testify in court," he told BBC.

"Because there were a lot of similarities between Johnny Depp's case and my own. I decided to post the trial videos on my YouTube channel in the hopes to create a community of people who have also been abused," he said.

"My goal was to bring out people who have been silenced."

And Ms Bedward, who has been getting millions of views for her TikToks, also feels personally connected.

"I just related to him [Mr Depp]... people perceive certain people in a certain way and they automatically deem them as guilty or just not a good person," she said.

"As a black woman in America, I experienced that…. some people are just seen as guilty without their case even being you know, proven and so I that's what brought me into it".

And there is another issue that has been expressed over and over again by the largely female followers of the cases. Amber Heard was an ambassador for a movement. In the wake of MeToo, she had become a spokeswoman for the American Civil Liberties Union, a charity that, among other things, represents victims of domestic abuse.

For Ms Bedward, that is deeply troubling.

"This is someone who has become the face of a movement that women have been fighting for, for years, and so to have someone be at the front of that and not be truthful is damaging to not only the organisation, but I think women overall," she said.

So to dismiss this case as just celebrity gossip or fan worship is to deeply misunderstand the variety of ways in which people are relating to what they are seeing.

But the scale of that reaction and its tone are also causing some to worry.

Deborah Vagins, who is the head of the National Network to End Domestic Violence feels the treatment of Amber Heard will resonate widely - and not in a good way.

"Victims are watching this, and they are thinking about how will I be treated if I come forward?" she said.

This public trial to restore a public reputation will have consequences.

But, there is also another conclusion.

This is a news story where everyone has had equal access to the source material, the journalist in court sees exactly what you see at home, the playing field has been levelled. Such access has empowered millions to engage and discuss.

It is also a news story that has broken free of the boundaries, language and stylistic conventions of traditional journalism.

There may be bots, there may be fake accounts, but the vast majority of the traffic is made up of real people who want to join a boisterous, global conversation about justice, truth and conflict in relationships.

It may not be decorous or polite, but it is a news story that has touched lives in a way that really matters to people who often feel the news is distant, dull and unconcerned with matters that affect them.

This article will likely only be read by a fraction of the number of people who have been following Ms Bedward or Mr Ali.

And just to repeat that figure: 18 billion TikTok views.

Media caption,
Watch: Amber Heard and Johnny Depp - the trial so far, in their own words