Johnny Depp, Amber Heard, and their long-awaited, defamation trial would air all the details of their turbulent marriage. The first three weeks of testimony have offered a cascade of eye-popping revelations, with Heard, through her attorneys, accusing Depp of sexual assault, while one of Depp’s bodyguards testified that he witnessed the actress throw a Red Bull can at her ex as well as punch him in the face. Also laid bare were Depp’s astronomical salaries (including $22.5 million for a would-be Pirates of the Caribbean 6) and sordid details of his drug-and-booze benders with famous friends like Marilyn Manson and Paul Bettany.
As unpleasant and chaotic as the proceedings were, a shadow war in the court of public opinion has been raging. The often-toxic fans and critics of celebrities have taken to social media to trash the other side. Heard has born the brunt of the vitriol, which ranges from a deluge of posts tagged #JusticeForJohnnyDepp and #freejohnny (who is not currently in jail) to out-and-out death threats. One Twitter user, identified only as Heard by a source close to him, posted a screenshot. “chloe”This was written on April 13, 2009. “who wants to join me in my expedition to brutally murder Amber Heard”; another named Nah’ wrote a week later: “#AmberHeard you big bobble head butch I’m coming for you when you get outta court hoe you lying ass big faced butch it’s up.” Rolling StoneViewed the archived tweets. Both accounts were later deleted. Similar sentiments are easy to find. On April 13, @histry_huh, a user also tweeted: “Brb on my way to go murder Amber Heard that fucking psycho #JusticeForJohnnyDepp.”
Even celebrities are joining the fray. On April 20, Depp picked up a new Instagram follower (joining a group 14.4 million strong) in Jason Momoa… who stars opposite Heard in the Aquaman franchise. Team Johnny was quick enough to take a look at the tea leaves. Strawberry Fields, a user on Twitter, offered his opinion. “Jason Momoa really just said, ‘justice for Johnny Depp’ by following him on Instagram.”Another person chimed in: “HAVE A ROTTEN BIRTHDAY EVIL WITCH”(Heard celebrated the 36th birthday on April 22nd). “May your day be filled lies and violence [sic].”
The hate has become so vehement and depraved — one Depp fan painted a picture of Heard defecating on the actor’s bed in a macabre interpretation of Depp’s testimony — that both sides are accusing the other of having fake fan armies. The reality is much more alarming.
Depp’s fan base has been one of Hollywood’s most rabid for years, laying the foundation for a David-versus-Goliath battle during the trial. On TikTok, the #justiceforjohnnydepp tag has more than 6.8 Billions views, while the #IStandWithAmberHeard tag has just 2.4 million views. On Twitter, some pro-Depp posts have received more likes than Heard’s entire 207,900 following. The lopsided discourse has led to speculation that Depp’s team has been using bots and algorithm manipulation to get an edge. Heard first raised the notion in 2020, in her $100 million countersuit to Depp’s defamation filing, claiming, without evidence, “As part of his ongoing smear campaign, Mr. Depp and/or his agents acting on his behalf have directed both authentic and inauthentic social media accounts, and/or non-human controlled ‘bots,’ to target Ms. Heard’s Twitter account and attempt to interfere with her [career].”
The suit reaffirmed the bot allegation, stating that “many”Pro-Depp accounts had Cyrillic signatures that suggested Russian origin. It then noted that Adam Waldman, who was on Depp’s legal team at the time, “is publicly associated with Russian individuals with the capability to organize such attacks.” (Waldman once represented Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska.) Waldman tweeted about the allegation. “Is this a real Counterclaim or am I getting Punk’d?” and to mock Heard’s implication of “some kind of dastardly Cyrillic Russian involvement.” (A fan of Heard’s named Christina Taft also wrote a book promoting this narrative, titled Amber Heard vs Johnny Depp & Bots: 21st Century Story: Influence OperationsThe product is described as “investigative journalism [that] delves into Julian Assange, Jennifer Robinson, progressives and the alt-right, artificial intelligence, Russia voting interference, Elon Musk, United Nations, and Aquaman 2.”)
The idea is still alive nearly two years later. Heard supporters continue to plaster cars (including jurors’) and telephone poles in front of the Fairfax County Courthouse with flyers claiming that Depp operatives manipulate the social media landscape, from YouTube to Reddit.
But Cyabra, a Tel Aviv-based startup that analyzes online conversations and spots disinformation, believes that Depp’s online fan base is overwhelmingly real, at least on Twitter. The company, which is backed by investors like Peter Thiel, and whose clients include the U.S. State Department, studied data on the platform spanning from March 13 — about a month before the trial kicked off — through April 25. Cyabra identified relevant keywords and hashtags that are associated with the couple and then looked at profiles that had participated in conversations around these phrases. The company uses AI proprietary to detect fake accounts, the most influential accounts and the sentiment. “velocity”The conversation (how many people are commenting on a topic and tweeting about it) Cyabra CEO Dan Brahmy shares his experience in synthesizing this data. Rolling StoneThat “the majority of the profiles that are on Johnny Depp’s side and support him are real people, almost 95 percent of them. These are genuine people who love Johnny Depp.”
Cyabra also studied the activity surrounding competing hashtags like #JusticeForJohnnyDepp and #IStandWithAmberHeard and reported that Depp’s contingent was getting far greater traction than his ex-wife’s, which the firm found to be mostly authentic as well (about 90 percent). The top fan page for Depp received more than 18,000 shares for content containing the hashtag #JusticeForJohnnyDepp and spread to more than 502 million profiles. Heard’s top fan page received only 138 shares, and it spread to approximately three million profiles.
“The Johnny Depp fan messages are able to get around better,”Brahmy continues. “The difference between the exposure of the pro-Depp to the pro-Amber [content] is more than 100 times.”
As for Depp’s fake five percent, Brahmy says that number falls within the three-to-five-percent average on any trending topic, while much of Heard’s bot activity, which Cyabra placed at about 10 percent, appeared to be deployed by uninterested third parties looking to promote a product by glomming on to the hot topic.
As the six-week trial enters its second phase,The cyber-brawl appears to be escalating. Cyabra found that there were more than 21,000 Twitter profiles who participated in the conversation about the Depp/Heard trial over the week ended April 25, an increase 588 percent over the week prior. The anti-Heard rhetoric only gets worse. Cyabra identified the most negative content in the trial’s proceedings on April 21. This was just a day after Depp gave evidence about an incident where Heard allegedly cut his finger in a violent argument. “harmful”Heard and Content
TikTok is flooded with pro Depp videos, but much of the activity is still taking place there. One that went viral, purportedly taken at an L.A.-area Starbucks, showed competing tip jars labeled for the exes, Depp’s full of cash and Heard’s empty. In the wake of the trend, Roslyn Talusan, a culture writer for the AV Club and Vice, has stoked speculation that Depp’s lawyers are somehow able to juice the TikTok algorithm, tweeting, “so many people on here have said tiktok keeps forcing videos from the d*pp trial onto their FYP and i can’t help but wonder how much his legal team paid for that.”
A source close to Depp calls that claim absurd and points the finger at Heard’s team. “As much as Amber’s PR representatives would like to believe that there isn’t any organic, unpaid support for Johnny online, it’s simply not the case,”According to the source Rolling Stone. “Johnny’s fans and followers — new and old — have rallied around his truth, and not an ounce of that support was paid for.”(Heard, apparently unhappy with the job done by the PR team, that they parted ways with them Sunday.
Her legal team hired a small security company to respond to online threats against Heard.Rolling Stone(the company is withholding her name at its request) which assessed her safety risk. In an April 24 report dubbed Operation Fairfax, the security firm noted that Depp’s fans, which it referred to as cult followers, could become more brazen and reckless in the coming days and that Heard’s in-person security personnel should change up routines and stay alert.
The concern is real enough that two Depp stans — Brooke Walsh (@depplyhallows) and Isabelle Orsini (@Izze1122) — were booted from the courtroom on April 13 and 14, respectively, after Heard’s legal team raised their unsettling social media footprints. Sources close to Heard have provided a screenshot of Walsh’s tweets in 2016. “I Can’t Wait For The Day I Kill Amber Heard,”Orsini also revealed to her followers on Twitter the name and address of the London hotel Heard would be staying at in 2021.
Not to be outdone, Depp’s team successfully pushed to have Heard supporter and music journalist Eve Barlow barred from the courtroom after they accused the writer of live-tweeting during testimony. “The social media landscape is shockingly brutal for Amber, with TikTok and Twitter especially prone to spreading disinformation and misogynist hate,”Barlow tells Rolling Stone. “The live broadcast of this trial is highly dehumanizing, and has resulted in obsessional nit-picking by Depp fans over Amber’s wardrobe every day, and her facial expressions, while Depp sits in court smiling, doodling, and laughing with his counsel, backed by an army of vocal Twitter fans who are [sometime seated] in the public gallery.”
While some close to the case, including former Heard attorney Roberta Kaplan, have maintained their belief that fake accounts amplify support for Depp, there’s no denying the virulence of the commentary it’s generated. Kaplan stated that fake accounts are a way to increase support for Depp. The Hollywood Reporter in 2020, “My firm is involved in a lot of controversial cases. Our clients are suing the white supremacists and neo-Nazis responsible for the violence in Charlottesville. I have clients who are suing Donald Trump. But, by far, the one case [of ours] that has generated the greatest amount of hostile social media attacks is Johnny Depp v. Amber Heard. Not even close.”
And though the ominous notion of bots and AI-driven treachery have become a powerful motif in a popular culture obsessed with conspiracies, in the case of Johnny v. Amber, the simpler explanation for the mud-slinging may prove to be more accurate: Humans — especially hyper-passionate fandoms operating from the safe confines of their own phones and computers — are perfectly capable of being bad actors all on their own.
Is the courtroom affected by the noise? It remains to be seen. “The right answer is no, it shouldn’t,”Kimberly Lau, an attorney who specializes in harassment/assault suits and is an expert on libel/slander suits, says: “But realistically, it may. The lawyers certainly could be influenced by what they’re seeing [on social media] and adjust their trial strategy and how they advise their respective clients to appear in court. So, it shouldn’t influence the trial, theoretically, but I think it’s impossible to eradicate all of that influence, especially in this high profile of a trial.”