The role of social media in the defamation lawsuit

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Now in its fourth week, the ongoing multimillion-dollar libel lawsuit between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard has come to a head and is pretty much unmissable on any public forum on the internet.

While most celebrity court cases remain planted in headlines and the occasional tweet, this is a rare and unprecedented exception – a hashtag explosion, amateur ‘detective’ work, multiple videos derived from TikTok, Instagram reels, and even stylized “Sigma Male” motivations. posts surrounding Depp’s admittedly amusing banter under oath.

The basis of the case is quite simple. After a whirlwind relationship and marriage in the mid-2010s, Amber Heard wrote an op-ed in 2018 for The Washington Post, in which she claimed to be a “public figure representing domestic violence”. This was followed by accusations of physical, emotional and sexual abuse during their marriage. Depp turned the tables, suggesting Heard was the real attacker, before losing a case in London in 2020 where a judge found “overwhelming” evidence that Depp had assaulted Heard.

Two years later, the feud between the two sides has escalated following several key #MeToo moments – a schism against the abusers that has now clashed head-on with a growing community of abused men that society and the law have traditionally taken less seriously.

The result is that long before the trial even reached its halfway point, a huge wave of public sympathy swept through Johnny Depp’s past allegations and unleashed a wave of hatred towards Heard and his supporters.

Unqualified commentary

Why did the court of public opinion side so strongly with Depp, even before Heard spoke? While it’s straightforward to attribute this to the mountain of serious evidence against Heard, it’s certainly unusual and deserves closer examination.

For starters, there are the thousands of reels matching images from the trial to popular music tracks, ranging from Nintendo Wii menu music to the “Sigma Grindset” audio cue, all pushing colorful titles such as “Ultimate Sigma Male in a cut clip of Depp rolling out a well-timed joke against Heard’s lawyers, or the 4-part “anthology” of “Johnny Depp being hilarious in court”; we expect to see more as the case progresses.

While there’s nothing particularly harmful about being entertained by an actor using his personality and wit to outsmart legal opposition, it’s the lack of context that perhaps requires special attention, particularly in a high-profile case of abuse.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention classifies and tracks data on what’s called “intimate partner violence,” a category that brings together physical, sexual, emotional, and even economic abuse under one roof. The statistics paint an alarming picture – 1 in 4 women and 1 in 10 men have suffered some form of domestic violence in their lifetime, the exact issues that lawyers for Depp and Heard have argued over for years.

“I think people automatically say ‘he was the real victim here’ and ‘she was the real abuser’ is premature because we haven’t heard from her,” says Kellie Lynch, associate professor in the Department of Criminology and criminal justice at the University of Texas.

An expert in studying cases of intimate partner violence, Lynch admits that while Depp may very well be the victim he claims to be, “what we are seeing is too quick a judgment. Both could have been victims and victimized each other.

Understanding Johnny Depp’s Appeal (and Lack)

Johnny Depp

“It’s fucking Johnny Depp!” is a good enough point to start with, all things considered.

John Christopher Depp II is easily one of Hollywood’s most recognizable actors. Nicknamed “The Man of a Thousand Faces,” he has earned a solid reputation for casting unusual and even atypical roles since the 1990s, developing a fan base of millions over more than 30 years.

Depp also has a well-documented history of charitable work and generosity to friends and colleagues, as well as a solid reputation for navigating interviews and public interactions effortlessly.

The point here is obvious. While several well-meaning fans have showered Depp with praise and support over the past few weeks, there’s certainly a powerful psychological effect at play here that pushes the facts of the matter aside and panders to fans’ understanding of Depp as a charming, charismatic ‘good boy’.

(I mean, there are at least a few hundred people in the world with ‘Captain Jack Sparrow’ tattoos. Google search, I’m telling you.)

Heard, on the other hand, has had less than half the screen presence and movie credits that Depp boasts of, and is on shaky ground when it comes to general likability and popularity compared to his ex-husband. Although Heard is “more” guilty than Depp, as we may or may not see after the trial is over, events play out much like this in front of millions of abused women:

Heard publishes op-ed on Depp abuse

Depp loses libel case in London for being called a ‘wife beater’

Heard’s reputation is publicly dismantled following the 2022 trial.

Although Heard may have multiple instances of verbal and physical abuse on his evidence sheet, the above pattern sparked anger at Heard that was different from fans eager for retaliation from Depp.

Multiple social media posts have accused Heard of diluting the experiences of other women who have suffered abuse, by allegedly lying about the facts of her own abusive behavior and simultaneously identifying herself as a victim, Heard’s hypocrisy combined. to the massive public reaction skates over a very important part of the trial which was instead flooded with “Johnny Depp owns lawyers” memes.

The result is that Johnny comes across as a “perfect victim” in the eyes of the public, many of whom are willing to ignore the actor’s very real history of assault and battery, as well as lawsuits. While Heard’s team spent the final court hearings trying to link Johnny Depp’s drug and alcohol abuse to Heard’s allegations, most of the public reacted with sympathy and understanding. .

We’re not saying drug addicts shouldn’t be treated sympathetically, but how often is the average victim of abuse treated that way? There’s definitely a general public inability to see Depp simply as a man alleging abuse and defamation, rather than his personality as an actor.

A domestic violence trial without domestic violence experts

Depp heard the defamation

“There’s so much sensationalism in this,” Ruth Glenn, president of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, told USA today. “This whole idea that before you go to the other side, because of who he is, people have already made up their minds, that’s probably the most bias I’ve ever seen, quite frankly.”

Glenn’s critique of the larger-than-life media treatment of the trial also underscores one of the most suspicious omissions from the list of people called to testify in Virginia courtrooms, genuine experts on domestic violence. Most of the abuse stories so far have come from both legal teams and Depp’s friends, family and associates.

While everyone on Earth has an idea of ​​what it means to abuse and be abused, a trial that attracts millions of views definitely requires a field expert to explain, elucidate and confirm doubts for the jury.

Depp’s legal team, to give them credence, called a forensic psychologist named Dr. Shannon Curry to explain Heard’s psychological ailments, which include “histrionic personality disorder” and “personality disorder.” limit”. Dr Curry also explained that after 12 hours of interviews with Heard as well as reviews of her mental health records, the conclusion was that Heard’s claims that she suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder were false. .

That said, an independent psychologist isn’t the best way to sort out the details of a “mutually abusive” relationship — a buzzword that’s gaining momentum as the trial progresses.

The aforementioned Glenn argues that the word is somewhat invalid, saying that “in every incident between two people there is a primary aggressor”. Another expert, psychologist Betsy Usher, seems on the fence, agreeing that “abusers can blame it on their victims” – exactly what Heard is accused of in this lawsuit.

“We often want to find reasons because we don’t have real data on why abusers do what they do,” Glenn said. The murky nature of Depp and Heard’s actual choices through the relationship remains obscured for most of us, and will continue to remain obscured and confusing for a jury that is sure to need a fair, unbiased, and professional explanation of the abuse to make his most important decision.

What do we do after the trial ends?

In addition to watching news of upcoming movie signings for Johnny Depp, it’s important to remember that while we are indeed watching court proceedings unfold in real time, not everything we see in court is 100 % in black and white.

“I urge people to just listen to the whole case and understand that everyone’s behavior is going to be exposed,” Lynch continued, cautioning us against taking both legal teams too seriously. “If someone tore your life apart and picked on your behavior, your texts and your emails, you could paint anyone in a bad light. That’s why they do it.

It’s important to take off the rose-colored celebrity glasses for a moment here. “This is an opportunity for us to talk about domestic violence and what it means,” Glenn said, “but we can’t do that until we listen to what Amber Heard has to say. .”

Remember that even if one person complains of defamation, there are two parties who make accusations of abuse. The case certainly deserves more nuance than it does right now – though I hope audiences will start to understand that once Heard finally comes to the fore this week.

(Featured image credits: Law&Crime Network)


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