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As Johnny Depp and Amber Heard’s defamation trial resumes, Features Editor Jenny Proudfoot calls out the toxic online dialogue around it and the consequences it will have for future victims of abuse…
Amber Heard and Johnny Depp’s defamation trial resumed this week, a court case which sees Depp sue his ex-wife for £38.7 million over a 2018 op-ed that she wrote for The Washington Post, alleging domestic abuse.
She is counter-suing him for £79.5 million, and the trial has seen both Depp and Heard come forward as alleged victims of domestic violence. The case already feels like a landmark historical moment, despite not yet reaching a verdict.
While the trial could have been a positive talking point, opening wider conversations around abuse – domestic violence is a global epidemic, with one in three women worldwide experiencing physical or sexual abuse during their lifetime – I can’t be alone in feeling like this isn’t what’s happening.
Instead, I have watched social media turn the trial into something of a circus, sending harmful messages to victims of domestic violence across the globe in the process.
To start with, we’ve witnessed the public’s blind and unwavering support for Johnny Depp, with an online dialogue that felt like Heard had been found guilty before she had even entered the courtroom.
When she testified, memes circulated the Internet mocking her “tearless sobs” and “over-acting” – some even went as far as to Photoshop pictures of her face onto Pinocchio. The day after, a TikTok trend seeing people recreate her emotional testimony and “breakdown” in joke videos had gone viral, getting over 1.4 million likes.
Heard’s Washington Post op-ed was entitled: “I spoke up against sexual violence — and faced our culture’s wrath. That has to change.” Based on the month-long character assassination I’ve witnessed, nothing has changed. Quite the opposite – it seems chillingly accurate.
The trial is about defamation – that is, whether Heard’s op-ed damaged Depp’s reputation so much he lost work – and yet the world seems to have forgotten this. Instead, they’re not only refusing to believe any of Heard’s claims, but openly laughing at her and delighting in her takedown.
Just think about the harmful message that sends to survivors of abuse.
It only serves as a shocking reminder about what really happens when women come forward with allegations of abuse, particularly against figures of power.
Domestic violence is vastly underreported, largely due to a fear of hostile reactions or not being believed. Only one in five female victims actually speak to the authorities – and Amber Heard’s takedown will only have justified these fears.
I’m not saying that I think Heard is innocent or that I think Depp is guilty – I’m not a lawyer and so it’s not for me to determine. But what I am saying is that what’s going on outside the courtroom is far more dangerous than what’s going on inside.
While an official verdict will soon be reached, it’s the long-lasting and toxic online dialogue around this case that will have the biggest impact, especially for future victims of abuse.
You don’t have to believe Amber Heard, but mocking an alleged victim of abuse cannot be a trend, and every joke taking away from this case is deterring people from coming forward in the future.
So before you get swept up in the meme-ification of this trial, remember what message that might send to abuse victims debating whether to come forward. That has to change.
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic abuse, call the free 24-hour National Domestic Abuse Helpline – 0808 2000 247, or visit www.nationaldahelpline.org.uk.