Youf you’ve opened TikTok in the last two weeks, you’ll have struggled to escape commentary or clips from the defamation trial brought by Johnny Depp against his ex-wife Amber Heard in a Virginia courtroom.
Heard wrote an opinion piece about the Washington that was used in Heard’s trial. PostTikTok made 2018 the year in which Depp claims that she defamed his character. Regular updates are available from the courtroom, both from established news sources on TikTok and from rank-and-file users who clip key moments and add their opinions. Videos tagged with the hashtag #johnnydepp have 11.3 billion views, with the #justiceforjohnnydepp hashtag collecting 5.6 billion views.
Despite no shortage of news happening around the world, the Depp-Heard trial seems to dominate TikTok—with most videos supporting Depp and denigrating Heard. This begs the obvious question: Why?
Representatives from TikTok declined to comment on this story. Many people who use TikTok have their own theories about why Depp’s videos have overtaken the site.
“TikTok is always a great amplifier for cultural moments,” says Abbie Richards, a research fellow at the Accelerationist Research Consortium and a mis- and disinformation researcher who specializes in how content travels on TikTok. “If you engage with one video about the topic, the algorithm learns that you like it and will continue to feed you similar—or even related—videos.”
Learn more What to Know About Johnny Depp and Amber Heard’s Defamation Trial
TikTok, like traditional media has become overwhelmed by footage and coverage from the trial. Livestreams from several news channels have been hosted within TikTok, covering the proceedings in court each day. This increases engagement and awareness about the trial. This creates an opportunity for others to join in the conversation, which appears to dominate the app. TikTok’s most important commodity is its virality. Users see one type of video or piece of audio and then create something similar to capitalize on it. The trial has been a popular meme in this case. “Whether you are part of Depp’s fanbase or not, the rush to join the conversation about Depp is highly motivated by algorithmic amplificationAnd the golden ticket to the For You page,” says Tom Divon, visual communication researcher at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
There’s also the fact that Depp is highly beloved by his digital fanbase, not least because of his role in the Harry Potter and Pirates of the Caribbean franchises. While the #justiceforjohnnydepp hashtag is closing in on 6 billion views, #justiceforamberheard is limping along at 21 million. “What we’re seeing at play in the anger against Amber Heard has a couple of layers,” says Georgie Carroll, an Australian academic who studies the relationship between online creators and their audience. “This is not something that’s representative of all fans or fandom, but we do always see a certain level of dislike and distrust levelled against the partners of popular male celebrities. Fans often think a female partner isn’t ‘good enough’ for their favourite celebrity, or hold on to a far-off hope that it should actually be them.”
In addition to the virality of an event with live news that most people believe they own, which features well-known stars and loyal fans, the Depp/Heard trial taps into another accelerant for its success: TikTok, cybersleuthing. The idea that amateur sleuths could use the internet to share research projects is not new. However, TikTok video clips have given the movement a bite-sized, interactive boost. Most famously, TikTok users claimed credit for discovering the body van-life blogger Gabby Petito in August 2021. TikTok sleuths pored over available open-source evidence, claiming that Petito’s fiancé Brian Laundrie was responsible for her murder.
A similar impetus drove TikTok’s crowdsourced investigation of West End Caleb, a New York furniture designer alleged to have ghosted several women—and appears to be in part responsible for perpetuating content around the Depp-Heard trial. “The phenomenon of West Elm Caleb wasn’t just that a few girls posted about their experiences with him. It was the snowballing of those posts, then posts about it, then memes, then meta memes about the memes, then articles and discourse off the app,” says Richards. “The thing spirals into a massive cultural moment.”
That’s happening around the current trial, too. Users are exchanging pet theories that revolve around someone who looks like Heard’s attorney, Elaine Bredhehoft, appearing in the crowd at a red carpet event for Depp’s 2013 movie The Lone Ranger. The theory has been shared nearly 15,000,000 times on TikTok. It’s just one of many recapping the trial.
The scale of content is understandable, says Carroll—as is the passion felt by both individuals’ fanbases. “When a celebrity is involved in a controversy—regardless of whether something is alleged or proven—our modern social media sphere means there’s immediately an immense pressure to renounce any affection you ever held for them,” she says. Yet as we’re seeing, many are instead choosing to double down on their love of Depp, convinced that the course of the trial will demonstrate their favorite actor’s innocence. TikTok has several weeks to go before the trial concludes. This will likely mean that TikTok will keep reverberating in pro-Depp, anti Heard content.
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