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27 Jun 2022 23:57
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  •   Home > News > International

    Johnny Depp v Amber Heard is a defamation case. But it could have a chilling effect on domestic violence survivors

    A jury will soon decide on the simple matter at the heart of the celebrity trial. On social media, millions of people have already chosen one side, waging a campaign for the truth that's become tangled up with hate.

    After six weeks, the defamation trial of divorced actors Johnny Depp and Amber Heard is set to end. 

    But its cultural impact is likely to be felt long after the jury returns a verdict.

    WARNING: This article contains disturbing content. 

    Unlike a previous libel trial in the UK, which Depp lost, the American do-over has been Hollywood-esque, with intimate details of the couple's troubled relationship broadcast to the world.

    Depp fans have spilled out of Virginia's Fairfax County courthouse daily, often lining the footpath, while others have watched online.

    Their support has been amplified on social media, in some cases by bad actors and trolls.

    Heard, by comparison, has been the subject of a social media pile-on, despite a British judge finding 12 of her 14 allegations of abuse to be "substantially true".

    A seven-person jury will soon decide if the actor defamed her ex-husband by describing herself as "a public figure representing domestic abuse" in a 2018 opinion piece. 

    The article, published by The Washington Post, does not mention Depp by name.

    He has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.

    Regardless of the trial's outcome, experts fear the public nature of the proceedings — and the intensity of the public discourse surrounding them — could have a chilling effect on survivors of domestic abuse.

    'The myth of the perfect victim'

    Depp is suing Heard for $US50 million, arguing his reputation and career were damaged by the Post article.

    His lawsuit described his ex-wife's allegations of physical and emotional abuse as an "elaborate hoax" and stated his intention to "clear his name".

    Heard is countersuing for $US100 million after Depp's lawyer told media her allegations were false. 

    During the trial, Depp also accused her of abuse, claiming she regularly picked fights with him and lashed out physically, once throwing a vodka bottle and severing the tip of his finger.

    "I was not allowed to be right, not allowed to have a voice," he said.

    The cause of the injury is disputed but Heard said the actor sexually assaulted her the same night in an alcohol-fuelled rage after accusing her of sleeping with two of her co-stars.

    Heard described several violent episodes, often coinciding with Depp's drinking and drug use, backed up by text messages, recordings, and photos showing bruises on her face and clumps of her pulled-out hair.

    "I knew I had to leave him. I knew I wouldn't survive it if I didn't," she said.

    Christine Scartz, the director of the family justice clinic at the University of Georgia School of Law, said the trial had bolstered damaging stereotypes of victimhood.

    "I think it's a really deeply ingrained myth that if you defend yourself or fight back... then you cannot be considered a victim because victims need to be guileless, innocent and terrified," she said.

    She placed what she called the "myth of the perfect victim" among other lofty gendered standards, such as those tied to motherhood, and said at the core of domestic abuse is a fight for power.

    "Domestic violence is all about control. So, if the relationship is ending, then the perpetrator is losing that control," she said.

    "In some circumstances, a way to get some of that control back is to initiate or prolong or extend litigation."

    How the trial became a media circus

    The trial is being live-streamed for judicial transparency, but its celebrity subjects render it "automatically theatrical", according to Robert Thompson, a professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University. 

    "It's built for close-ups," he said.

    "It's built for reveals and big moments."

    Mr Thompson pointed out this puts Depp at an advantage in the court of public opinion.

    "Johnny Depp was a name that most people had heard before this trial happened," he said. 

    "To a big portion of the population, this trial comprises 100 per cent of what they know about Amber Heard."

    Heard filed for divorce from Depp in May 2016, then for a temporary restraining order against him four days later.

    This latest legal dispute relates solely to defamation, but has again aired a tangle of domestic abuse allegations from both parties.

    Around 25 per cent of women and nearly 10 per cent of men in the United States say they have experienced intimate-partner violence, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

    That includes physical or sexual violence, as well as stalking and psychological aggression. 

    While many survivors of sexual assault don't report it, the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC) estimates only between two and 10 per cent of allegations are fabricated.

    "In general, we need to know that when victims come forward, they're mostly telling the truth," said Katie Hood, the CEO of One Love Foundation, a nonprofit focused on respectful relationships.

    "We need to really gut-check that with ourselves, and support people when they come forward."

    Ms Hood said abusive parties are often "highly charming and manipulative". 

    "It can be very difficult for people not educated about domestic violence — and what it looks like and how it plays out — to really have a judgement call," she said.

    The dark side of Depp-Heard memes

    Before the trial began, hate for Heard was already circulating on social media.

    In April, she contributed to research by the Center for Countering Digital Hate, which found Instagram failed to act on 90 per cent of harassment sent via direct message to several women in the public eye.

    For Heard, that included death threats against her and her one-year-old daughter.

    "I have no recourse to address the kind of scale of attacks that I'm getting," she told researchers.

    "I've made many police reports but because it doesn't say 'I'm going to kill you at 2pm on Thursday', they won't investigate."

    Hashtags labelling her a liar and an abuser have repeatedly trended on Twitter in recent weeks.

    A Twitter expert, who testified in the trial, categorised more than 2.5 million tweets from April 2020 to January 2021 as negative towards Heard.

    On TikTok, the hashtag #JusticeforJohnnyDepp has now surpassed 15 billion views, while a counter hashtag, #JusticeforAmberHeard, has only 51 million views with many of the videos still skewed in Depp's favour.

    "Believing the experiences of the victim also requires people to believe the capacity of the person who has been identified as the perpetrator," said Laura Palumbo, the communications director at NSVRC.

    "People would like to think that because someone's in a position of celebrity, they feel like they know what that person is like, what their life is like, based on the characters that they play."

    Fandom may explain some of the interest in the trial, but its dominance across multiple social media platforms is no accident. 

    The conservative website The Daily Wire, for example, has spent thousands of dollars boosting stories slanted against Heard on Facebook and Instagram throughout the trial, according to Vice News.

    YouTube and TikTok stars have pivoted to Depp-Heard content to capitalise on the trial's algorithmic popularity.

    Many of the endless memes, threads and videos, such as those parodying Heard's emotional testimony, have dark undertones, while others veer into conspiracy theories about coded messages in her clothes.

    Is this the backlash to #MeToo?

    Heard's carefully worded opinion piece was published at the height of the #MeToo movement, under the headline "I spoke up against sexual violence — and faced our culture's wrath. That has to change."

    While the article touches on her own experience, it is focused on the myriad ways institutions protect men accused of abuse.

    Heard, who has admitted to hitting Depp and throwing household objects, doesn't neatly fit the #MeToo mould but, as Ms Hood explained, "bi-directional violence" is common in abusive relationships.

    "In calling it mutual abuse, you ignore the fact that it came from a behaviour of an abusive partner," she said. 

    "[It] doesn't fairly point out what the role of the abusive partner has in catalysing the whole thing."

    A few months after Heard filed for divorce, Depp told his agent via text message: "She’s begging for total global humiliation."

    During that trial, more text messages between Depp and his friend, fellow actor Paul Bettany, were read aloud in court.

    "Let's drown her before we burn her!!!" Depp wrote. 

    Depp has repeatedly lent on the support of famous friends, most recently supermodel Kate Moss, while Heard has, arguably, faced the culture's wrath at full force.

    And others have taken notice.

    In March, Depp's childhood friend Marilyn Manson, whose real name is Brian Warner, launched a similar defamation lawsuit against actor Evan Rachel Wood.

    Wood had publicly accused the musician of raping and abusing her while they were in a relationship, which he has denied.

    The lawsuit claimed the "malicious falsehood" had "derailed Warner’s successful music, TV, and film career".

    A blueprint for abusers

    The defamation trial may itself be a form of abuse known as "litigation abuse".

    "If you talk to people going through divorce, a common tactic of an abusive partner is that they use the court system and the court cycle and litigation to keep control," Ms Hood said.

    "Many victims will feel like this is why I don't come forward," she said. "Nobody's going to believe me."

    Depp brought the case to a Virginia courtroom, despite both actors living in California, on the premise the Post's digital servers are located there. 

    However, Heard's legal team sought to move the case to California because Virginia has weaker anti-SLAPP laws, which are designed to protect free speech.

    Short for 'strategic lawsuits against public participation', experts say they are a tool used to intimidate and silence criticism through expensive legal cases. 

    "I think it's only a matter of time before somebody calls my office and says 'I want to do something. I want to file this protective order or get out of this relationship, but he said he'll do a Depp on me'," Ms Scartz said. 

    "It's going to become shorthand for dragging someone's name through the mud and making them relive the trauma, and just doing it in a very public way."

    © 2022 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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