CHENNAI: The defamation trial of Hollywood stars Johnny Depp and Amber Heard has long been making headlines, and with the trial coming to an end, there is heated online debate about the guilt or innocence of either party. While awaiting the verdict, social media influencers and their followers seem to have already passed their own judgements. The fact that so many people have a clear opinion on this celebrity mudslinging is probably mainly due to the fact that the trial is being streamed live on the internet.
Viewers worldwide have been able to follow the court battle, free of charge via the digital broadcast platform “Court TV.” Some see it as an amusing feud between Hollywood millionaires, others as an unbearable farce. The “curse of the cameras” is at the heart of the problem, Cologne-based media lawyer Lucas Brost told DW. “The pictures stick — a crying Amber Heard or a smiling Johnny Depp. That evokes particular emotions and also reactions in the population.”
The trial is “a very serious violation of personal rights,” Brost said. He is very critical of the fact that such a trial has been subjected to public scrutiny, that PR teams are being used, that there are conflicting interpretations of the process, all resulting in preconceived judgements. “This way, the public forms an opinion that in the end has nothing to do with what the court may decide.” A public procedure is intended to guarantee the greatest possible transparency in the US.
“The approach is understandable, but it goes — as this trial shows very clearly — far beyond what it was intended to do. The media presence acts like a fire accelerant.” Every facial emotion can be directly commented upon and “sent into the ether”, said Brost, referring to the countless people who have shared images from the trial on social media channels.
Brost speculated that no one benefits from this public procedure, with Amber Heard’s reputation especially being harmed by the live broadcast: “The public pendulum is swinging in favor of Johnny Depp.” However, the trial is not a career booster for the Hollywood star either, since sordid details have come to light that will remain in the public’s memory. Meanwhile, numerous memes, parodies or video snippets of the trial have been making their rounds on the internet. Influencers are either taking sides or ridiculing the trial, creating the impression that it is merely a form of entertainment.
US sociologist Nicole Bedera, who specialises in sexual violence research, fears that the trial could have far-reaching consequences for survivors of sexual violence. The damage done by influencers is immense, she told DW. Influencers usually benefit from a “snowball effect” of algorithms. “Once you have a lot of people already on Johnny Depp’s side, it looks like he has won the internet before Amber Heard’s side of the case has even been presented,” Bedera said.
People supporting Heard have also faced online backlash. According to Bedera, this has led to many of them feeling that they can no longer speak out — especially survivors of sexual violence who identify with Heard but who are intimidated by such publicly scrutinised campaigns. Furthermore, Bedera is concerned that survivors might be deterred from taking legal action against perpetrators in the future. Or they might even keep quiet about their traumatic experiences altogether.