Toxic fans have made Johnny Depp and Amber Heard’s trial inescapable

You aren’t imagining things. The internet is completely underwater, submerged in memes, supercuts, livestreams, fancams, and conspiracy theories about the Johnny Depp and Amber Heard defamation trial.

The trial is part of a long-running legal battle between the two actors. In May 2016 Amber Heard filed for divorce, and in 2018 she penned a Washington Post op-ed about being a sexual assault survivor. Depp wasn’t named in the piece, but in 2019 he filed a suit against Heard for defamation. A year later, she filed a countersuit, and the trial is now playing out both in a courthouse in Fairfax County, Virginia, and on livestreams on platforms like YouTube and Twitch.

The trial has set off a toxic fandom bomb, as major social platforms incentivize the worst human behavior possible to drive up their engagement metrics. And during Depp v. Heard, the defensiveness, ugliness, and outrage cycle of online fan communities has infected every corner of the web like a virus, taking the shape of the content that does well on those platforms. It has become a new Twitch meta, the Washington Post reported, flooding the platform’s “Just Chatting” page with livestreams and reaction streams. And on TikTok, the #justiceforjohnnydepp hashtag on the app has almost 7 billion views, per a recent report by Rolling Stone. There are pro-Depp makeup tutorials, fancams that throw cutesy filters on clips of his testimony, and supercuts meant to make Amber look unstable.

Fandom isn’t new — you can trace it all the way back to reading clubs for Sherlock Holmes. But fandom in the internet age has a different level of intensity and coordination. Social media has morphed it into something closer to online gangs or cults, protecting and policing each other in lieu of real moderation happening on large platforms like Facebook or Twitter. In fact, these platforms have spent years rewarding and training users to operate as swarms, share content connected to their favorite actors and franchises, and go to war with each other for clout.

The social media reaction to Depp v. Heard is the most recent example — though it feels particularly inescapable compared to online fan movements that have come before. This doesn’t feel like a niche corner of the web yelling out into the void. It feels ubiquitous. It has morphed into what Emmi Conley, a researcher who specializes in online propaganda, calls a proxy culture war, where fandoms for both Heard and Depp are using the actors as archetypes in a referendum on the #MeToo movement.

“People are following it like a sport. Obsessing over it. Making GIFs and memes of it. You’ll notice the conversation isn’t about male victims of domestic violence or resources for survivors of abuse,” she said.

But how did we get here? Conley pointed to the Tumblr porn ban as a potential inflection point for internet fandom. After a mass exodus of about 150 million users, following the site’s controversial ban on NSFW content in 2018, Twitter became the new home base for fandom content. And the site’s very different incentives around going viral and being engaged drastically changed the way fandoms interacted with each other.

“They are no longer mostly contained within their circles. Now, one of the most exciting things that can happen to a fandom is to be seen. They want to see themselves on the trending page,” Conley said, pointing to how K-pop fandoms try to dominate the site. “Like everything else on sites like Twitter, fandom on big social media platforms is less about mutual enjoyment or subject matter (like it used to be on blogs or forums) but about volume,” she said.

Depp fans were active on Twitter in early 2019 when Depp filed the defamation lawsuit against Heard. At the time, fans of the DC cinematic universe and Zack Snyder’s Justice League were organizing the #ReleaseTheSnyderCut fan campaign on Reddit and Twitter. Snyder fans were convinced that a different version of the movie existed — rather than the one reedited and reshot by Joss Whedon — and they were mobilizing across the web to pressure Warner Bros. to release it. Though Snyder fans were later vindicated by an actual full Snyder Cut release, they had gained a reputation for being toxic and entitled. After Depp filed the lawsuit, they began petitioning for Heard to be removed from DC movies like Justice League and Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom, siding with Depp and believing the messy divorce proceedings and defamation lawsuit could jeopardize their chance to see these movies.

But the trial has since found an audience in other corners of the internet. “I think TikTok tipped it over the edge into national consciousness,” Jessica Lucas, a digital culture researcher and journalist based in the U.K., told Polygon.

Lucas said that as the trial began in April, TikTok users became obsessed with it because of the site’s preexisting love of true crime. “There are plenty of examples of viral ‘investigations’ done by TikTok sleuths, and in this case TikTok gets to be judge and jury, which again is why it’s, unfortunately, proving to be so popular,” she said, pointing to TikTok’s similar obsession with the Gabby Petito disappearance, “Couch Guy,” and the attempted doxxing of West Elm Caleb.

TikTok, perhaps more aggressively than any other social platform on the web, emphasizes content that can fit within subcultures and fandoms — to the point where the company’s blog in 2021 declared that subcultures were “the new demographics.” Also, every feature is shareable or remixable, meaning it’s not just videos that can trend, but also the audio within that video, the movements recorded, the fashion worn, and the hashtags with which it’s tagged.

“Users are able to take something quite serious and remix it, chop it up to fit their narrative, add music and effects — i.e., a zoom, closing in on a shot — to completely change the tone of what’s going on in the courtroom,” Lucas said. “It’s everyone compiling their own cases, arguments, and evidence and presenting it in a way that fits their ultimate goal.”

Meanwhile, the livestreams of the trial have become hugely popular on YouTube and Twitch. One channel called LawandCrimeNetwork is even simulcasting the trial on both platforms. And as the Washington Post pointed out, major streamers like Hasan Piker and Imane “Pokimane” Anys are now streaming it to their millions of viewers. And the act of taking a trial like Depp v. Heard and feeding it through the aesthetics of Twitch has been jarring, if not downright inhumane. For instance, the streamer and pro gamer Félix Lengyel, better known as xQc, made headlines last week for putting a “cry counter” on screen to count how many times Heard teared up during her testimony.

Image: YouTube/xQcOW

According to Casey Holmes, a streamer from Austin, Texas, who goes by the name LucidFoxx, it’s not surprising that the trial is popular on the platform. “These are all parasocialities,” Holmes told Polygon. “And I think because people know who Amber Heard is and know who Johnny Depp is, it kind of gives them this, I don’t know, maybe artificial idea that they’re tuned in to what this trial is, who these people are.”

Toward the end of April, the explosion of TikTok content and livestreams about the trial also made its way to Reddit. Subreddits like the usually very wholesome r/MadeMeSmile began to fill up with grotesque attempts at reframing the trial as an inspirational story for Depp.

“There’s some kind of disconnect,” Amanda Brennan, the former head of editorial for Tumblr and current trends analyst for XX Artists, told Polygon. “It doesn’t feel real to people.”

Brennan said she was disturbed by what she’s seen online over the last few months. She said that users are treating Depp, the real person, like he is one of his characters. “There’s no throughline of where Johnny Depp ends and his characters begin,” she said. “There’s so many of these memes that I’ve seen that have been people dressed in Jack Sparrow cosplay, which — it blows my mind.”

Brennan also saw the trial memes as an endpoint of a certain kind of online parasociality. “You’ve got your super-internet people who live in this kind of parasocial world of, ‘Oh, this is my fandom. This is the thing that makes me happy and who I am, I must protect my son. I must protect this person that I care so much about.’ But it’s not necessarily the person they care about,” she said.

Social platforms have heavily incentivized this blurring of celebrity with the characters they play and with the fandom and community built around them, as the flurry of activity from fans boost streamers’ and content creators’ engagement metrics. “It’s distressing to see,” Brennan said. “Identifying with this person who possibly did very terrible things to someone else, and had very terrible things done to them.”

“It’s performative fandom, the whole thing,” Brennan said.

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