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Opinion Why has the internet turned against Amber Heard and is this the end of #MeToo?

Seána Glennon looks at the wider implications of the contentious defamation trial on the #MeToo movement.

LAST UPDATE | 31 May 2022

THE JURY IS out in the $50 million US defamation suit issued by Johnny Depp against his ex-wife, Amber Heard. The proceedings stem from Heard’s 2018 opinion piece published in the Washington Post, in which she described herself as “a public figure representing domestic abuse”.

The piece did not name Depp, however, Heard divorced Depp in 2016 and obtained a restraining order against him. Over the course of the six-week trial, the internet has erupted with an extraordinary backlash against Heard; the actress has been pilloried as a liar and a gold digger. The online reaction quickly evolved from support for Depp to rage and mocking towards Heard. Why has the internet turned against Amber Heard? And has this case spelt the end of the #MeToo movement?

Level of nastiness

The vitriol against Heard is puzzling in many respects. Her allegations against Depp have previously been found to be credible. In 2020, Depp sued the Sun newspaper in Britain on foot of its report of an alleged assault against Heard, in which the paper referred to Depp as a “wife beater”. The judge, in that case, was satisfied that this description of Depp was accurate and that 12 of the 14 instances of violence alleged to have been perpetrated by Depp against Heard had indeed occurred.

Justice Nicol stated that he was satisfied on the basis of all of the evidence, that Heard was “the victim of sustained and multiple assaults by Mr Depp in Australia”. The judge rejected Depp’s claim that Heard severed his finger, and remarked on the depth of Depp’s rage that drove him to scrawl messages to Heard in his own blood. “I accept her evidence of the nature of the assaults he committed against her. They must have been terrifying” the judge concluded.

The widespread support for Depp is also perplexing, particularly given the series of grotesque text messages sent by him following Heard’s filing for divorce, which have come to light in the trial. In one such message, Depp expressed the hope that Heard’s “rotting corpse is decomposing in the f*cking trunk of a Honda Civic.” In another exchange with the actor Paul Bettany, Depp wrote “Let’s burn Amber!!!” followed by “Let’s drown her before we burn her!!! I will f*ck her burnt corpse afterwards to make sure she’s dead”.

Heard’s allegations against Depp are among the most serious examples of domestic violence one can imagine; they include claims of physical and verbal abuse and sexual assault including forced penetration with a liquor bottle (Depp has also made abuse allegations against Heard). An English court, after a 16-day trial, believed Heard’s allegations. Why then, has the internet turned against her and so many seem to be rallying around Depp?

Guided by media

The answer may lie partly in the treatment of the matter by some media outlets and even corporations. It has been reported by Vice News that the right-wing media outlet the Daily Wire has spent tens of thousands of dollars on social media ads supporting Depp and denigrating Heard. The comedy sketch show Saturday Night Live has parodied the trial, making light of the serious allegations of abuse and describing the trial as being “for fun”. Various Starbucks branches have designated tip jars in support of “Johnny” or “Amber”.

The conduct of the US trial itself has facilitated the frenzy, the judge granting permission for the live streaming of the case, with millions tuning in each day and snippets and memes being shared across media platforms in real time.

A further factor which might be contributing to the online onslaught against Heard may be the rise of “anti-fandom”, reported on by Kaitlyn Tiffany in the Atlantic, where people fixate upon a (usually female) celebrity perceived as causing the downfall of a (usually male) fellow celebrity, leading to an online campaign of denigration and the spreading of baseless rumours.

Conspiracy theories about Heard are rife, including that she faked her bruises using make up and took cocaine while giving evidence in court.

Regardless of the reasons for the tide of anti-Heard material being pushed on social media, this content will no doubt be seen by many people experiencing intimate partner violence. Such violence is pervasive internationally. In Ireland, the demand for the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre’s services reached record highs in 2019. We also know that gender-based violence is greatly underreported. Research indicates that one reason for this underreporting is the cultural acceptability of such violence.

What now for #MeToo?

#MeToo, the phrase coined by the advocate Tarana Burke, harnessed the power of social media by inviting women and girls to speak up about their experiences of violence and sexism.

In her Washington Post essay, the subject of the defamation proceedings, Heard told a story familiar to many women who have experienced abuse: the fear of reporting sexual harassment and assault, the realisation that many institutions are built to protect male predators, the hope springing from the conversations started by the #MeToo movement. A whole internet culture now seems to have sprung up in backlash to the #MeToo movement, with Heard as the target.

The circus around Depp’s case against Heard, and the meme-ification of a trial centred on the most serious allegations of domestic violence, reminds us of the dark side of the internet.

The very fears that Heard described in her piece, of “our culture’s wrath for women who speak out”, has come to pass in her treatment throughout this case. It will no doubt deter victims even further from coming forward – and this is no laughing matter.

Seána Glennon is a lawyer and PhD candidate at the Sutherland School of Law, UCD and Chief Outreach Officer at UCD’s Centre for Constitutional Studies.


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