The Atlantic Daily: The Only Sure Outcome of Depp v. Heard

The Depp-Heard defamation trial is a next-generation media circus, and the implications of it are disturbing.

Tomorrow, Johnny Depp and Amber Heard’s six-week defamation trial comes to a close. Depp is suing Heard, his ex-wife, for $50 million, accusing her of defaming him in a 2018 Washington Post op-ed in which she refers to herself—without naming him—as “a public figure representing domestic abuse.” Heard, in turn, filed a $100 million defamation counterclaim against Depp.

The jury will likely issue a verdict next week. But online—where every lurid detail of the trial has not only been dissected and debated, but frequently weaponized against Heard—an inescapable chorus of voices has been declaring her guilt, and his innocence, for weeks. “The pro-Depp, anti-Heard stance is now a dominant trend on social media,” my colleague Kaitlyn Tiffany wrote last week:

Across the web, Heard’s supposed lies have been turned into all manner of memes, and even, by one cosmetics company, a piece of marketing material. On TikTok, couples have been acting out violent moments as described in Heard’s testimony, in order to highlight their alleged absurdity. On Tumblr, Depp supporters continue to circulate the debunked claim that Heard plagiarized part of her opening statement from Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley. On Twitter, I was personally surprised to see that even many of the Harry Styles fans I follow are, for whatever reason, adamantly anti-Heard. “Makes me sick listening to Amber Heard,” one wrote. “Literally amber heard is the plague,” wrote another.

Livestreamed on YouTube, with quotes from witnesses and lawyers printed onto T-shirts and sold on Etsy, the trial has seeped into every corner of the internet, enabled by an often-toxic fan culture that Kaitlyn describes as having further curdled into “anti-fandom.”

Warring fandoms occupy—and leverage—many of the same online spaces that the polarized political factions do. As one former Depp fan, who came around to Heard’s side after joining a Reddit community that supports her, said, “This is QAnon 2022, with the Q drops being daily TikToks analyzing the secrets hidden in Amber’s body language.” Meanwhile, Depp v. Heard, my colleague Megan Garber observes, “has taken the dimensions of a political campaign: propaganda, image management, hard evidence subsumed into vague partisanship.”

What are the real-world consequences for Heard, beyond the vitriol and harassment leveled at her? An entertainment-industry expert testified at the trial that Heard may have lost $45 million to $50 million in endorsements, TV, and film work over Depp’s claims that she faked her domestic-violence allegations against him, and a petition to cut her role, which has already been reduced, in the upcoming Aquaman 2 has more than 4.3 million signatures. (Depp claims that he lost out on a $22.5 million deal to star in a sixth Pirates of the Caribbean.) It’s surely little solace to her that though she may be facing the end of her acting career, she will forever be internet-famous.

More on the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas:

Latest dispatches: Molly Jong-Fast calls out Bill Maher for his recent monologue about transgender kids [Wait, What?].

Tonight’s Atlantic-approved activity: Read Hernan Diaz’s new novel, Trust, which the scholar Jane Hu describes as “an audacious period piece that … seeks to undo the hardened conventions undergirding myths about American power.”

A break from the news: What can neuroscientists learn about the spontaneity of playtime? My colleague Ed Yong details the delightful experiments in which scientists taught rats hide-and-seek—and rewarded them with tickles.

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Katherine J. Wu contributed to this edition.