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Opinion – TikTok has made a joke of Depp and Heard’s sexual assault case

By making light of Amber Heard’s sexual assault allegations, viral app TikTok has shown its dark side. 

Johnny Depp and Amber Heard’s defamation trial has captured the attention of press, fans, and the wider public over the past few weeks.

The court case involves Depp’s attempt to sue his ex-wife for £38.7 million over a 2018 article she wrote for the Washington Post, in which she claimed Depp had been abusing her.

As it continues without sign of an agreeable ending, online response to the trial has taken a turn few could have foreseen.

Outpourings of support for Depp were always to be expected, given his longstanding and far-reaching fan-base. But the sheer scale of this support has been overwhelming.

Fans have lined the streets leading to the courthouse, day after day, holding placards and hand-made notes.

‘We love you, Johnny!’ and ‘Team Johnny’ have been common statements. Others have thrown flowers, stuffed animals – even a small box filled with unidentified goods – into the open window of his passing car.

In cases that involve allegations of sexual assault by a man against a woman, it’s no strange thing that the prosecuted is staunchly defended by the public, whilst the woman faces criticism and doubt.

The #metoo movement has made steps to shift this narrative, driving an international movement that saw victims of rape speak openly about their experiences for the first time.

Women in the public eye, like Gwyneth Paltrow, Salma Hayek, and Rose McGowan, were finally listened to, after years of whispers in the industry regarding their abuse by Harvey Weinstein.

But despite these critical steps forward, it seems we are still struggling to believe alleged abuse victims. Because it’s not just the scale of support for Depp that has marked this trial. It’s the form much of that support has come in.

Social media has followed the trial in each uncomfortable, complex detail. TikTok – the Mecca of today’s zeitgeist – has become a hub of videos from the court house: CSI-style mock-investigations of the evidence, and clips poking fun at both Depp and Heard, their lawyers, and witnesses in the stand.

On social media, the trial has become somewhat of a circus. But the memes and videos mocking Heard specifically have become the cornerstone of a disturbing public narrative.

TikTok is known for starting unexpected viral trends; the renaissance of Louis Theroux’s cringeworthy rap with DJ Wild Wayne a recent phenomenon of note. But the mass-memefication of an alleged assault victim has to be one of the darkest – and most unpredictable – of the platform’s history.

This week has seen the emergence of a controversial round of videos mocking Heard’s facial expressions as she becomes emotional in court.

These warped comedic snippets of a woman in distress have made it easy to forget their context. Testimonies by both Depp and Heard have been harrowing in their detail and intimacy – recalling drug addiction, physical violence, and sexual assault.

Support from Depp’s fanbase was inevitable, a blind defence that has favoured numerous A-List men (Michael Jackson’s immense audience have staunchly denied any accusations of sexual misconduct made against him over the years – despite the regularity of these claims).

But the internet has overwhelmingly picked Depp’s side, an ardent backing that spans far beyond Depp’s fanbase. It’s as if the viral trend in question here is not the mocking of each bizarre development of a high-profile celebrity court case, but the choice to support Depp and ridicule Heard.

Last week ‘#JusticeForJohnnyDepp’ was trending on Twitter, shortly followed by ‘#AmberTurd’.

Each new meme that comes out of this trial sends a dangerous message: that victims of domestic violence can be ridiculed, mocked, and taunted without consequence. That their claims aren’t to be believed, especially if the accused is a man with a health of power and popularity.

Heard’s initial statements from 2018 have a sad irony about them in light of this message. She told The Washington Post at the time,

‘I knew certain things [from a very young age]. I knew that men have the power – physically, socially and financially – and that a lot of institutions support that arrangement.’

As Raven Smith noted, Depp’s innocence in the eyes of the public makes it hard to believe London’s High Court ‘previously found allegations that Depp was a ‘wife beater’ to be ‘substantially true’’. He stated in his Vogue column this week, ‘The British courts believed Depp beat his ex-wife. What’s stopping the rest of us?’

It would be in bad taste to mock any alleged victim in any context – let alone on such a global, public scale. But jeers at Heard are grotesque for their below-the-belt-irrelevancy. The actress has been ridiculed for her clothing, makeup, even her voice.

It’s cut-and-dry misogyny, the same kind of shallow assault on women that our society constantly calls out. And it’s not just social media users who are jumping on the hate-Heard bandwagon. The company behind a makeup compact that Heard has claimed she used to hide her bruises have made a TikTok disputing her claims.

Other celebrities have also been quick to join in with viral trends involving re-enactments of Heard’s testimony, dances, and reaction videos. Lance Bass recreated a clip from the trial on his social media last week, with the caption ‘In honour of the trial starting back up…had to do it’.

It’s as if we’ve completely lost sight of what a rape allegation amounts to. Even if Depp is innocent, the unbridled attacks on Heard are grossly unwarranted.

This trial has held up a deeply unflattering mirror to our society. Platforms like TikTok cultivate vapid trends, encouraging us all to blindly follow the leader. But when the darkest topics of rape, assault, and domestic violence are thrown into the mix, it reveals our fundamental lack of empathy.

I suppose it’s time we face a difficult question: is it too late to shift the narrative around Amber Heard, and with it the stigma that still plagues victims of sexual assault?

Or has social media irrevocably changed the way we approach real world issues? Has it eroded our capacity to grasp their severity, on a scale that undoes all progress made for women and abuse victims worldwide? I can only – fervently – hope not.