picture of Amber Heard walking out

(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Opinion

Opinion:The influence of social media on the Johnny Depp and Amber Heard trial

How social media turns subjective opinions into objective truths.
<a href="https://highschool.latimes.com/author/katevercruse/" target="_self">Kathryn Vercruse</a>

Kathryn Vercruse

November 1, 2022

Since the early 2000s, the internet has increasingly satisfied our fundamental need to communicate and connect with people, whether it be professionally on LinkedIn or socially on apps like Instagram and TikTok. We live in an age in which being digitally connected is a necessity for school, work, social life, and even entertainment.

Each generation—Gen X, millennial, and Gen Z—has a preferred platform. Studies show that Gen Z has eschewed apps like Facebook and Instagram in favor of TikTok, a social media platform that anyone can use to publish short videos for the world to see. TikTok gives us the most recent trends, information, and drama, sometimes within seconds of the actual event. 

Whether it be the newest fashion style or the best products to use, Gen Z emulates the social media influencers who we look up to in order to create a perfect life. I myself have bought beauty products based on viral TikTok videos.

While TikTok is a great source for more mundane issues, putting complete faith in people who are really strangers is incredibly problematic. Without any effort or incentive to fact-check, we are susceptible to making judgments or taking something as true based on an entertaining and persuasive presentation.

TikTok can truly make or break someone’s career or reputation. One of the most egregious examples of this was the highly publicized trial of Johnny Depp and Amber Heard.

It is safe to say that teenagers know very little about the intricacies of the legal field, so our opinions of the case were based on the snippets or highlights of the trial as told by “armchair experts,” people who we trusted even without knowing their own credentials. Our blind trust in the people behind our screens are what cause us to make inconsiderate judgments and opinions. 

As successful actors in the entertainment industry, Johnny Depp and Amber Heard have always been in the spotlight. Mr. Depp perhaps more so than Ms. Heard—until recently, that is. Like many in my generation, I grew up watching the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies, and Mr. Depp was a fan favorite in the entertainment industry because of his wild, humorous portrayal of Captain Jack Sparrow.

Although I loved the character of Jack Sparrow, I did not know much about the actor who portrayed him. I knew he had a daughter, Lily Rose Depp, who is a big name in the fashion industry. Other than that, my knowledge was very limited, and I had no reason to think about his personal life off the screen.

Once the extremely publicized trial between Mr. Depp and Ms. Heard began, I was immediately hooked. I didn’t watch the trial, but I happily consumed the media soundbites and the “shocking moments” of the trial on TikTok.

As a teenager growing up in a culture in which social media informs a lot of my opinions—something I am now deeply reconsidering—I believed everything the media was feeding me.

Though I had never followed any kind of law content before, the trial popped up regularly on my For You page, which is what the app uses to show content you may be interested in. Within days, my “for you page” was flooded with memes, jokes, and highlights from the trial. Suddenly, legal experts had their moment in the sun as they exposed the inconsistencies of Ms. Heard’s statements and reveled in the dramatic proceedings that played out for the public.

My feed mainly consisted of content about Ms. Heard and the wild, barely believable statements she made on the stand. Videos would dissect her statements and explain, with evidence from the trial, how it was “clear” that she was lying.

The trial made instant celebrities out of Mr. Depp’s lawyer, Camille Vasquez, Ms. Heard’s attorney, Elaine Bredehoft, and fan-favorite psychologist, Dr. Shannon Curry, who famously defended the muffins that she brought into her office one day. Ms. Vasquez was hailed as a powerhouse attorney, while Ms. Bredehoft was mocked for appearing unprepared and flustered.

These nonstop videos greatly influenced how I perceived Ms. Heard and the trial. The more videos I saw proving her alibis or stories wrong, the more I sided with Mr. Depp. Her statements were turned into comedy and entertainment pleasure for viewers. As the alleged lies became more dramatic, so did the videos. Everyone was making fun of her outrageous stories as time after time evidence or witnesses exposed her lies.

As the trial progressed, Mr. Depp was painted as a tragic victim of a calculating ex-wife, a woman who intentionally sought to ruin his career. He was placed on a throne in the public eye and even inspired the “Justice for Johnny” movement. Fans flooded the court each morning to get a glimpse of him as he calmly and confidently walked into court. No such fans appeared to support Ms. Heard.

When the verdict was delivered by the jury, the public immediately celebrated Mr. Depp’s win. What was not highlighted, however, was the fact that the jury also found on some counts for Ms. Heard and awarded her damages for her defamation counterclaim. Mr. Depp was not completely innocent in this matter, but the public didn’t care—and, regrettably, neither did I.

After watching an interview with Ms. Heard on the TODAY show, my perception of the trial shifted. I began to question how the media portrayed the trial and wondered whether I had leapt to unfair conclusions. During this interview, Ms. Heard stated that she believed she did not get a fair trial because of the social media frenzy surrounding it.

I found out that the jurors were allowed to go home after each day of the trial and were instructed to avoid discussing the trial, watching any news reports about the trial, or doing their own research about the topics at trial. While I hope they followed that order and did not watch or read any coverage of the trial, it is hard to imagine that they were able to completely disengage from it. I now understand why Ms. Heard believes that she wasn’t given a fair trial.

This trial has made me reflect on the prominent role of social media in everyday life. While increased connectivity to people around the world certainly has exciting benefits, the possibility of widespread misinformation or unfair bias is troublesome.

At the end of the day, it’s important to have the critical thinking skills to differentiate between social media entertainment and actual truth. I now try to verify things on my own before believing the social media hype, but this can be difficult when complex topics such as defamation or other legal issues are discussed.

If people like myself knew more about the legal components of the case, would they have given Amber Heard more of a chance? What if she really was telling the truth? If the trial had not been live streamed, would the result have changed?

 Ultimately, I don’t know the answers to those questions. What I do know, however, is that social media is a powerful force in our society, one that turns subjective opinions into objective truths. Even after viewing this case from both sides, I still agree with the jury’s findings that Mr. Depp was the harmed party.

Most importantly, though, my overall perception of the effects of social media has changed dramatically. This case forced me to think thoughtfully and critically on why I was so adamant about my opinion from day one. And while I still don’t fully understand the inner workings of a trial, I can say for certain that, going forward, I will be increasingly cautious before jumping to any conclusions.