For weeks, the countless takes, tweets, and TikToks about actor Johnny Depp’s defamation trial against Amber Heard have been inescapable. It was hard to ignore the fierce online embrace of Depp or the vitriol directed at Heard. It became clear that the trial wasn’t just about which Hollywood actor was to be believed –— it was, in part, a proxy for a broader culture war over the “Me Too” movement.
On Wednesday, a jury of five men and two women dealt a victory to Depp in his defamation case against Heard, his ex-wife. Heard, for her part, prevailed in part of her counterclaim against Depp. Depp charged that Heard had falsely and maliciously accused him of domestic abuse, costing him millions in damages from lost acting jobs after an opinion piece attributed to Heard was published by The Washington Post in 2018. While the piece didn’t name Depp directly, Heard described herself as a “public figure representing domestic abuse.”
The verdict rapidly made its way across social media platforms, with some conservative pundits such as Ann Coulter and Meghan McCain declaring the death of #MeToo. (McCain’s tweet, which read: “#MeToo is dead. Helluva job @ACLU” has since been deleted; the ACLU wrote a draft of the opinion piece and helped place it. Heard is an ambassador for the organization.)
Tarana Burke, who started the “Me Too” Movement years before it would become a viral hashtag, stressed in a statement Thursday that the movement is “very much alive.”
Burke said people try to “kill” the hashtag “every few months” as a sport, but that “it means something to millions and millions of folks.”
“You can’t kill us. We are beyond the hashtag. We are a movement,” Burke said. “The ‘me too’ movement isn’t dead. The system is dead.”
Days earlier, Burke’s organization, me too. International, issued a statement acknowledging the “mockery of assault, shame and blame” over the weeks of the trial, calling it a “toxic catastrophe and one of the biggest defamations of the movement.”
Despite the gravity of the testimonies throughout the trial, Heard’s abuse claims were widely mocked. Because the trial was livestreamed, it was possible to grab footage and turn it into clips that brought in views and new followers. Many content creators quickly learned that there was an audience for creating pro-Depp content, while posts viewed as sympathetic to Heard made online targets out of others.
How the trial played out on social media alarmed experts.
“It’s not just that the extremely serious issue of domestic violence was turned into a lurid spectacle on social media, but also that mainstream media and public discourse so thoroughly bought into the misogynist narrative that obscured the underlying — and straightforward — legal issues,” Mary Anne Franks of University of Miami’s School of Law told CNN Business on Wednesday after the verdict.
Franks, in a 2019 paper, pointed out the contradictions between those who support free speech and those who wish to curtail what some are able to speak freely about.
It “is women’s speech that has been most feared, and thus extensively regulated, criticized, and prohibited throughout American history,” she wrote in 2019, adding that “a mass movement of women speaking out about experiences and abuses that have long been suppressed, such as the #MeToo movement, should be praised as the quintessential exercise of free speech.”
The Depp v. Heard trial, she said Wednesday, essentially boiled down to “a digital-age witch trial,” noting the intent was “to roll back the minor progress made by the #MeToo movement.”
(Carrie Goldberg, an attorney whose firm is known for representing victims of sex crimes both online and offline, tweeted Wednesday: “We’ve had a good % of potential clients come through intake these last couple weeks who need legal help against an abusive ex and have expressed terror at how they are afraid of being retaliated against like Depp.”
The pro-Depp fervor was particularly evident on TikTok. Shortly before the verdict was read, the #JusticeForJohnnyDepp hashtag had garnered 18.8 billion views, while #JusticeForAmberHeard had amassed just 68.2 million.
“It’s a massive celebration on TikTok right now for Johnny Depp,” Ashley Roberts, a TikTok user who previously found herself in the crosshairs of pro-Depp supporters and men’s rights activists for expressing a differing viewpoint, told CNN Business Wednesday evening.
“It wasn’t a total absolute loss for her,” added Roberts, referring to Heard winning part of her counterclaim, a fact that she said isn’t acknowledged in many celebratory posts.
Post-verdict, the hostility toward Heard raged on, with people using the hashtag #MeToo to berate her and feeling emboldened by the verdict to do so. Heard, meanwhile, has indicated she plans to appeal.