Toxic fans have made the trial of Johnny Depp and Amber Heard inevitable

Toxic fans have made the trial of Johnny Depp and Amber Heard inevitable

You are not imagining anything. The internet is completely underwater, immersed 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 play, but in 2019 he filed a lawsuit 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 in live streams on platforms like YouTube and Twitch.

The process has set off a toxic fandom bomb as major social platforms incentivize the worst human behavior to boost their engagement metrics. And while dork v. Heard, the cycle of defensiveness, ugliness and outrage of online fandoms has infected every corner of the internet like a virus, taking the form of the content that resonates well on these platforms. It’s become a new Twitch meta, the Washington Post reported, flooding the platform’s “Just Chatting” page with live streams and reaction streams. And on TikTok, the in-app hashtag #justiceforjohnnydepp has nearly 7 billion views, according to a recent report Rolling Stone. There are pro-dork makeup tutorials, fancams throwing cute filters on clips of his statement, and supercuts meant to make Amber look unstable.

Fandom isn’t new – you can trace it back to the reading clubs for Sherlock Holmes. But fandom in the internet age has a different intensity and coordination. Social media has turned it into something more akin to online gangs or cults protecting and monitoring each other, rather than real moderation on big platforms like Facebook or Twitter. In fact, these platforms have spent years rewarding and training users to act as crushes, share content associated with their favorite actors and franchises, and compete against each other for influence.

Social media reaction to dork v. Heard is the most recent example – although it feels particularly inescapable compared to previous online fan movements. This doesn’t feel like a niche corner of the internet screaming into the void. It feels ubiquitous. It has evolved into what Emmi Conley, a researcher specializing in online propaganda, calls a proxy culture war, with fandoms for both Heard and Depp using the actors as archetypes in a referendum on the #MeToo movement.

“People follow it like a sport. obsessed with it. Creating GIFs and memes from them. You will find that the conversation is not about male victims of domestic violence or resources for abuse survivors,” she said.

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

“They are no longer mainly locked in their circles. Well, one of the most exciting things that can happen to a fandom is to be seen. They want to see themselves on the trending side,” Conley said, pointing out how K-pop fandoms are trying to dominate the side. “Like everything else on sites like Twitter, fandom on major social media platforms is less about mutual pleasure or topic (like blogs or forums used to be) and more about volume,” she said.

Depp fans were active on Twitter in early 2019 when Depp filed the defamation lawsuit against Heard. Back then fans of the DC cinema universe and Zack Snyders justice league organized the #ReleaseTheSnyderCut fan campaign on Reddit and Twitter. Snyder fans were convinced that there was another version of the film – and not Joss Whedon’s edited and remade one – and they mobilized across the internet to pressure Warner Bros. to release it. Although later vindicated by an actual full release of Snyder Cut, Snyder fans had earned a reputation for being venomous and entitled. After Depp filed the lawsuit, they requested that Heard be removed from DC movies like justice league and Aquaman and the Lost Kingdomsiding with Depp and believing that the messy divorce proceedings and defamation lawsuit could jeopardize her chances of seeing those films.

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

Lucas said that when the trial began in April, TikTok users became obsessed with it because the site was already loving true crime. “There are many examples of viral ‘investigations’ being conducted by TikTok sniffer dogs, and in this case, TikTok becomes judge and jury, which is again why it’s unfortunately proving so popular,” she said, pointing out pointed to TikTok’s similar obsession with the disappearance of Gabby Petito, “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 into subcultures and fandoms — to the point where the company’s blog declared in 2021 that subcultures are “the new demographic.” Plus, each feature can be shared or remixed, meaning not only videos can be trending, but so can the audio in that video, the recorded movements, the fashions worn, and the hashtags tagged with it.

“Users are able to take something pretty seriously and remix it, cut it up to fit their narrative, add music and effects – e.g. ‘ said Luke. “Each brings together their own cases, arguments and evidence and presents them in a way that suits their ultimate goal.”

Meanwhile, live streams of the trial on YouTube and Twitch have become very popular. A channel called LawandCrimeNetwork even broadcasts the process simultaneously 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 starting a process like dork v. Heard and feeding it through Twitch’s aesthetic was harrowing, if not downright inhuman. For example, streamer and pro gamer Félix Lengyel, better known as xQc, made headlines last week for putting an on-screen “scream counter” to count the number of times Heard burst into tears during her testimony.

A screenshot from xQc's live stream of the Depp v.  hear

Image: YouTube/xQcOW

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

Towards the end of April, the explosion of TikTok content and live streams about the trial also hit Reddit. Subreddits like the usually very sane r/MadeMeSmile began to fill up with grotesque attempts to recast the process as an inspirational story for Depp.

“There’s a kind of disconnect,” Amanda Brennan, former editor-in-chief for Tumblr and current trend analyst for XX Artists, told Polygon. “It doesn’t feel real to people.”

Brennan said she was disturbed by what she had seen online over the past few months. She said users treat Depp, the real person, as if he were one of his characters. “There’s no solid line where Johnny Depp ends and his characters begin,” she said. “There are so many of these memes that I’ve seen that are about people dressed in Jack Sparrow cosplays that – it blows my mind.”

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

Social platforms have greatly encouraged this blurring of celebrity with the characters they play and with the fandom and community built around them, as the glut of fan activity boosts engagement metrics from streamers and content creators. “It’s terrifying to see,” Brennan said. “Identifying with this person who may have done and had very terrible things done to someone else.”

“The whole thing is performative fandom,” Brennan said.

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