If you’ve been on TikTok at any point during the last month, you’ve almost certainly come across footage of the defamation trial between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard. Far from the usual scope of court case reporting, which in Johnny’s case against The Sun in the UK, saw minimal news coverage (but still, plenty of exploitation in the tabloids), this trial is being filmed and broadcast to the world – creating a literal flood of images, video clips and gifs on social media.
Perhaps nowhere is it more prolific than on TikTok, who’s For You Page ensures that any popular video will wind up on your feed, and who have been pushing endless depictions of both parties’ testimony, analysing Johnny’s ‘chivalrous’ actions in minute detail, or making Amber Heard into another meme, somehow.
Aside from footage of the actual court case, there’s also a strange phenomenon on the app of people creating their own content around it – ‘reporting’ and dissecting each day’s testimony in detail. But it’s all incredibly one-sided: TikTok has become a Johnny Depp fan app, and consequently, Amber Heard has been fed to the Gen-Z lions.
Maybe it’s down to the excruciatingly public nature of the whole thing – two of the biggest actors in the world, playing out their darkest personal moments live on camera and having it replicated and regurgitated all over the internet. It’s also hard to discuss the case without mentioning the other infamous, ever-looming celebrity court case frenzy in recent history – O.J Simpson’s murder trial, which arguably set a new precedent for public interest and involvement in legal proceedings. What started as a murder trial ended as a form of celebrity endorsement, with the trajectory shifted from trying to prove a point to one of racial politics.
In the Depp-Heard trial – something similar has happened. The trajectory has shifted from trying to win the lawsuit to being a vessel to facilitate public adoration of Johnny Depp, and in turn, unquestionably vilify Amber Heard. Adding fuel to the fire, and perhaps going some way in explaining TikTok’s obsession with it, is the slew of celebrity witnesses called to the stand. From Jason Momoa to Kate Moss, the case has transformed into a celebrity-spotting event.
Fans queue for hours for the chance to watch it all unfold in person, and crowds line the street to frantically wave at Johnny as he leaves court in the back of a car each afternoon. Their behaviour recalls how throngs of fans would await a glimpse of a star at an awards show – of which this is the Oscars – if the Oscars were repeated daily. How do we see all of this? Social media, and TikTok, who’s constant commentary is further transforming proceedings into a showbiz-like fixture.
Brands have been criticised for falling into the trap of engaging with TikTok’s coverage of the trial as well. Duolingo’s omniscient TikTok presence has undoubtedly catapulted it into new levels of popularity, thanks to its manufactured-informality (read: authenticity) and unprecedented activity in comment sections of hundreds of viral videos on the app. But it’s comment asking users if they ‘think Amber has tiktok’ under a video of Amber Heard’s testimony in which she dramatically states that her dog ‘stepped on a bee’ (objection: relevance) earned them backlash for getting involved at all.
It’s weird enough that America allows court cases to be filmed – even without the inclusion of social media bias which has rendered the whole process a spectacle. TikTok isn’t interested in the truth, letting each side’s legal team do their job, or the nuance of any argument – the view-led culture it has inspired has given rise to a whole new case, in which Amber Heard is on trial for just existing. In today’s digital landscape, celebrity trials like these will have to adapt and change under the strain that constant digital scrutiny is bringing. But if this case is the blueprint, it seems that there’s a lot more thinking to be done.
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