Trial by TikTok: The Dangerous Precedent Set in Depp v. Heard That Could Affect Our Whole Legal System

Paz Daniela Ortiz Santa Maria ’26

Staff Writer

TW: Discussions of domestic abuse, sexual abuse, rape, and assault.

The Cut writer Claire Lampen authored the piece, “Which Women Do We Choose to Believe?” contemplating the mass online hatred actress Amber Heard received following the defamation lawsuit her ex-husband Johnny Depp filed against her and the resulting “trial of the century.” In the article, Lampen reflects on the psychological impact that the media-circus surrounding the Depp v. Heard trial may have on the victims of domestic and sexual violence: “I think about survivors following the trial from home: If this is the response a person can expect from airing their claims in court, why speak up at all?”

For those who are not aware, the Depp-Heard situation began with their tempestuous relationship around 2012, which led to them getting married in February 2015. In May of 2016, Amber Heard filed for divorce and obtained a restraining order against Depp. The months leading up to the divorce settlement in August of the same year were filled with allegations of verbal, psychological, and physical abuse on Heard’s side, and of lying and making up accusations for financial gain on Depp’s. The divorce process  concluded in 2017, after which Depp and Heard released a joint statement declaring that “neither party has made false accusations for financial gain. There was never any intent of physical or emotional harm.”

In December of 2018, Amber Heard wrote an op-ed titled “I spoke up against sexual violence—and faced our culture’s wrath. That has to change” that was published by The Washington Post. In the piece, she describes how she became the target of online harassment campaigns after speaking out about being a sexual abuse survivor and expresses her distrust of institutions who continue to support men who stand accused of domestic and sexual violence. Although she never mentions her alleged abuser by name, this is the article that Depp would sue Heard over in 2022.

Depp and his legal team pushed for the trial to take place in Fairfax County, Virginia, largely, in my opinion, because the free speech laws of the state would allow for the most voyeuristic live broadcast of court proceedings. And, it worked. It is no coincidence that the last “trial of the century” was also a televised case of a charismatic American fallen hero accused of harming his “gold-digger” wife and ended with a verdict that acquitted the alleged abuser not only in the eyes of the law, but in the consciousness of popular opinion.

In a post-#MeToo world, the masses’ vicious treatment of Heard felt like a regression of sorts; a relapse disguised as genuine concern for male victims of domestic violence. This pseudo-moralism served as a perfect justification for millions of users of TikTok and other social media platforms to disparage Heard’s testimony of physical and psychological abuse. When Amber Heard testified to having been raped by Johnny Depp, snippets of her declaration became trending audio templates for TikTok users to recreate the descriptions of her alleged assault with their pets, garnering millions of views and likes. Other, more cynical self-proclaimed “Depp-stans” would record themselves reacting to her deposition, “thirsting” over what they considered an alluring description of a sexual encounter with the actor.

As a passive scroller from the other side of the phone screen, there was something mesmerizing about the glee with which the internet assassinated Amber Heard’s character during the weeks the trial took place. It was as though the average user’s repressed misogynistic tendencies, festering under a surface of performative allyship worn since the wake of so-called political correctness, had finally found an excuse to blow up. Amongst the casualties were not only Amber Heard, Evan Rachel Wood, the many victims of Harvey Weinstein, and other famous women who dared speak up against prominent men in the film industry, but survivors among the common people, friends we speak to everyday who witnessed how we treat women with stories similar to theirs.

Gone are the days where internet phenomena such as this one could be disregarded as taking place in a virtual echo chamber. As of 2023, it is safe to say that we are political entities in online spaces as much as we are in our respective nations, to the point where our collective power can and has helped set legal precedents. For all intents and purposes, the average TikTok user had a permanent chair in the jury and effectively influenced the outcome of Depp v. Heard. To pretend otherwise would not only be naïve but actively negligent.

What power does a single TikTok video have? What about a TikTok video and a tweet? And a meme. And an edit, a GIF, a RedBubble sticker. I don’t think we can yet quantify the impact and influence that online spaces have in civil, legal, and political institutions and proceedings, and perhaps we never will. Because of that, as users, we must act responsibly even though our individual actions might seem insignificant in the larger scheme of things. 

We failed Amber Heard. Let’s not make the same mistake again.

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  1. 1
    C petres

    Corrected Comment (please replace my first comment with this amended version).

    You have omitted that the jury determined her claims to be a hoax. The reactions on SM were, in my opinion, related to her apparently deliberate attempt to ruin someone’s life. That said, some of the comments were extreme.

    I am hopeful true survivors will not be too afraid to speak up – if they are telling the truth they should have nothing to fear, but maybe that’s naive.

    I am concerned with your suggestion that the jury were looking at SM against the explicit order of the court. Jury service is not something people actively seek. In my opinion, you are insulting them by suggesting they have no integrity.

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