It is a highly publicized and very popular trial that opened in the state of Virginia, in the United States, a few weeks ago. At the origins of the story, multiple trials between the two ex-spouses, Johnny Depp and Amber Heard, since their divorce in 2017, where the latter accused him of verbal and physical violence under the influence of drugs and alcohol . In 2018, the actress wrote a column in The Washington Post, where, without quoting her ex-husband, she indicated that she had become a “public figure representing domestic violence”: it was on this statement that Johnny Depp filed a complaint for defamation, claiming $50 million from his ex-wife. Which has initiated a counter-suit, for 100 million dollars, accusing him of a smear campaign.
This high-profile trial based on questions of damage to reputation is, as a symbol, filmed and broadcast live by Court TV, a channel specializing in the fields of police-justice, court atmosphere and criminal investigations. A broadcast that also takes place on social networks, YouTube, Twitter and Tik Tok in the lead, where summaries are presented and analyzed after each day of hearing. A trial of stars, but above all of evidence: with photos, videos, text messages and sound recordings, the two parties come to talk about their relationship in what is most intimate, from their sexual relations to their private exchanges .
Stéphanie Lukasik, in information and communication sciences, is not surprised by the attraction of social networks for this trial: “It is in the continuity of a new informational ecosystem, in which social networks become main channels of information,” she says. It is more particularly on Tik Tok that we find the majority of this content related to the trial: comments on the statements of one or the other, montages of video extracts on dramatic music, conspiracy analyzes to prove the Amber Heard’s lies, emotional testimonials from fans about Johnny Depp’s sadness… At this stage of the trial, the Internet seems to have taken sides for the most part: Amber Heard is a liar, and Johnny Depp a victim. “We are moving from a court of justice to a socio-digital court, because we know that social networks tend to exacerbate the polarization of opinions” adds Stéphanie Lukasik. On Twitter, the hashtag #JusticeForJohnnyDepp explodes, accompanying a number of misogynistic messages.
If the trial between Amber Heard and Johnny Depp is not the first over-mediatised trial in Hollywood, it takes a particular turn due to the involvement of Internet users. “What I find interesting and unprecedented with this case is that it happens at the culmination of several web phenomena: a bizarre mixture of different online communities, web investigators…” says Lucie Ronfaut, journalist specializing in news technologies. As the journalist writes in her Rule 30 newsletter, these content creators include a mix of Johnny Depp fans, anti-feminist and transphobic activists, web investigators and crime fans, as well as number of opportunists who do not hesitate to ride the polemic. Each argument of the two parties is combed through, from the brand of makeup used by Amber Heard to hide her bruises to the scabrous details of sexual violence, through the attitude and dress of the protagonists during the trial. “One of the main objectives in sharing this content is to express one’s opinion and to persuade through emotions,” says Stéphanie Lukasik.
The responsibility of the platforms
At the end of the day, we have the feeling, as Internet users, of not being able to simply be indifferent to this affair. Lucie Ronfaut would thus title her newsletter of April 27th I do not want to see Johnny Depp on Tik Tok : “There is a side where we are forced to take an interest in it, due to the algorithmic recommendation of Tik Tok, which has encountered this type of content more than the others. This For you (homepage that offers videos based on tastes and similarities, editor’s note), we don’t really know how it works, but I guess Tik Tok guessed that women my age had a connection with Johnny Depp d one way or another. It is a local phenomenon that is becoming ultra viral, completely algorithmic,” the journalist develops.
Unlike other platforms, Tik Tok does not allow you to mute a hashtag or a recurring topic, potentially disturbing for some people. Anyone can come across testimonies of sexual violence between two cat videos. “It also proves that everything is contained and everything can be contained: your cat, the demonstrations at the Capitol, the trials… We have become so used to transforming ourselves into content, to segmenting ourselves on social networks, that ‘we apply this operation to everything,’ adds Lucie Ronfaut. Even if it means treating a trial like a television series, taking fan tools to apply them in a logic of virality, coming to feed an opinion. “When we talk about rabbit hole, that is to say this spiral of content that is difficult to control, it is not only on the far right, it can affect a lot of subjects. It’s very disturbing to see teenagers joking about domestic violence, ”concludes Lucie Ronfaut.
While waiting for the end of the trial, which should be concluded in a few weeks, social networks will continue to get carried away… questioning our voyeurism and the strength of algorithms.