‘Depp v. Heard’ Exposed Something Ugly about the Internet

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AP Images

Actor Amber Heard, left, and actor Johnny Depp appear in the courtroom at the Fairfax County Circuit Court in Fairfax, Va., Thursday, May 5, 2022. Depp sued his ex-wife Heard for libel in Fairfax County Circuit Court after she wrote an op-ed piece in The Washington Post in 2018 referring to herself as a “public figure representing domestic abuse.”

Caspar Dowdy

Video games. Influencer chats. The gory details of a failing marriage. All things that can be livestreamed in 2022.

Johnny Depp’s defamation suit against ex-wife Amber Heard began on April 11 and it swept through the internet shortly after. The trial has been livestreamed — with a lively comment section — and has allowed the public to form their opinions in real time.

The decision to put this trial on the internet for the whole world to see has made a jury out of the entire world. And in a society where the court of public opinion holds almost as much weight as the justice system, the roles of judge and executioner aren’t far behind.

From the beginning of the trial to May 3, Depp and his team have testified against Heard. Those 13 days of deliberations have provided a curious internet with an excess of private information that’s been quickly converted into YouTube reaction videos and amateur takedowns of Heard’s case.

And the nature of a courtroom means that all of this information has been released into the world without the other perspective. For weeks, Depp’s side of the story has been top news; only now are Heard and her team able to respond with tabloid-worthy news of their own.

For weeks, the public has been expected to listen to one side in real time and only speculate on the opposition. There’s no expert to explain what’s happening, only an internet full of onlookers trying to make sense of complex legalities and to keep in mind that more is to come. 

Instead of giving the public the ability to be presented with both sides at once and make decisions with all of the information, the choice to livestream this case means that whoever’s currently making their point will have the world’s attention and have a better chance at playing to the public’s sympathies.

I doubt the world will ever know what all happened in Depp and Heard’s marriage. I doubt this court case will bring real justice to anyone. I doubt the internet’s response to it is setting a healthy precedent.

The only thing left to wonder about is why the world became so obsessed with it.

While people suffer around the world, while the earth itself pushes back against climate disaster, while human rights slip through everyone’s fingers. While all of that happens, the day’s trending topic is the messy personal lives of two strangers who were in some movies we liked.

And all of it is being engaged with in the same format as a Minecraft Twitch stream.