Old-school institutions helped create Depp-Heard internet firestorm

There’s a theory about horrible online behavior that goes like this: Sometimes social media is great for helping people connect, bringing new voices to the public and exposing injustices that we used to think of as “in real life.” But sometimes the internet takes existing social forces and amplifies them to the point of creating a feedback loop that disconnects its participants from reality and makes IRL more unreal by the day.

Johnny Depp’s successful defamation lawsuit against ex-wife Amber Heard, who accused Depp of molesting her, has become one of those moments. In recent weeks, many feminist observers have been dismayed that the trial served as a platform for an extraordinarily vicious online hate fest against Heard, whom Depp also accused of abusing him, which some took as a sign of a backlash against the #MeToo movement .

The trial marked the culmination of several digital trends: toxic online celebrity fandoms that have often been particularly harsh on women; a culture of paranoid open-source investigations on platforms like TikTok; Monetization features on platforms like YouTube that make it profitable to become a crowd favorite unless “If you post from a pro-amber or even a neutral position, you will lose followers‘ as noted by NBC News tech and culture reporter Kat Tenbarge. “As a result, Amber’s evidence was largely ignored.” Some have argued that the fact that the jury was not seized may have exposed her to the ubiquitous online comments at home, which may have unduly influenced her findings against Heard.

But what was odd about the Depp-Heard trial as an internet story was the presence of several distinctively old-school institutions at the heart of the saga, each with their own powerful influence on the chaos to come.

The court system and its presumption of openness were there almost at every turn, leading to a PR attrition that worked in Depp’s favor

It’s hard to imagine how the Heard-Depp saga would have played out online without the US court system’s presumption of openness, beginning with marriage as a legal institution that has long been regulated by the government.

The dispute between Depp and Heard was legal history long before it became an internet obsession, beginning with Heard’s filing for divorce and a restraining order against Depp in 2016 after less than two years of marriage. The seeds of the coming conflict were planted from the start: Heard’s allegations of physical and mental abuse; the Depp camp’s suggestions that Heard was lying (at one point she noted she was attracting “negative media attention”); the court filings, which offered an unusually public and candid glimpse into the chaos of a troubled celebrity couple’s personal lives. After months of fighting between the couple’s camps, they reached an agreement on their divorce that, in retrospect, far from resolving the couple’s disagreements, only set the stage for the even more dramatic public spats to come.

It was Depp who launched the next two legal forays into the justice system to clear his name, first in the UK where he fought a libel case – in a country where libel cases are easier to win than in America – against a tabloid lost that Depp had described as a “woman beater”. After weeks of public testimony from both sides, a judge ruled in 2020: “I have found that the vast majority of Mr Depp’s alleged assaults on Ms Heard have been civilly proven.”

In this case, the past was prologue: some British observers noted at the time that the social media campaigns seemed definitely tipped in Depp’s favor, even though he lost the case, and they were concerned about the impact. “It could certainly change attitudes towards bringing civil charges of domestic violence, and it has already seriously blurred the lines between cross-examination and the more cruel court of popular opinion,” the Observer newspaper wrote at the time.

When Depp decided to take a second shot at the claims, suing Heard directly in Virginia for defamation for his abuse of her, and a Fairfax County, Virginia, circuit court judge agreed that the trial could be televised, it prepared the prerequisites for the coming feeding frenzy.

The American Civil Liberties Union played a crucial role as a behind-the-scenes media influencer who, along with the Washington Post, unwittingly caused Heard to suffer a rare loss on an American speaking case

At the heart of Depp’s Virginia lawsuit was a 2018 Washington Post op-ed headlined by Heard, “I’ve spoken out against sexual violence — and faced the wrath of our culture.” This needs to change,” which Heard described as “a public figure who advocates domestic violence,” who “had a rare vantage point to see in real time how institutions are protecting men accused of abuse.”

“Imagine a powerful man as a ship, like the Titanic,” the play says. “This ship is a huge company. When it hits an iceberg, there are many people on board desperately trying to patch holes – not because they believe in the ship or even care about the ship, but because their own destiny depends on the enterprise.”

Depp argued that the Washington Post article was clearly about him, and thus made libelous claims that he was an abuser. But far from being a carelessly written personal article thrown away in the heat of the moment, it was actually written by an American Civil Liberties Union staffer in consultation with several ACLU attorneys and with input from Heard’s own legal and PR team -Teams written. Heard had become an “ambassador” for the ACLU, founded in 1920, after announcing that half of her $7 million divorce settlement from Depp would go to the legal nonprofit. One of the reasons the nonprofit decided to acquire Heard, according to ACLU General Counsel and Chief Operating Officer Terrence Dougherty, is Heard’s large following on social media.

The ACLU decided to capitalize on that following and Heard’s visibility from her then-upcoming Aquaman role by helping her land a traditional op-ed at the highest profile traditional media property she could secure, preferably at a prestigious outlet like New York Times or the Washington Post.

The ACLU staff’s view was “Amber will receive an incredible amount of press and publicity. So what better time than now to publish this op-ed to generate meaningful readership on our topics? Dougherty testified, adding, “Publishing comments on matters like this is the bread and butter of the ACLU.”

Dougherty testified that Heard’s attorneys removed “references to her marriage and her divorce” with Depp in an apparent attempt to avoid violating a non-disclosure agreement she signed with Depp as part of their divorce settlement, but that they did so the ACLU’s understanding was Heard was referring to Depp without naming him.

Neither the ACLU nor the Washington Post were named as defendants by Depp for their role in Heard’s article, the headline of which — cited in Depp’s lawsuit as one of the article’s defamatory elements — was apparently written by Washington Post editors, according to Dougherty.

Depp’s victory over Heard, both in court and in online opinion, shows that the old-fashioned dark arts of Hollywood power still hold great sway over how stories unfold

Tiktok is new. It’s not a fan base. Courts are not. Prominent legal and PR teams are not.

A potentially crucial factor in the case was the successful selection of venue by Depp’s attorneys to try the case in Virginia, which has a weaker anti-SLAPP statute than California, even though Depp and Heard both live, work and work in California Witnesses had in California. Depp’s team won the argument that the Washington Post (headquartered in neighboring Washington, DC) has editions printed and servers in the state, making it a suitable venue. Anti-SLAPP laws could have provided Heard with an easier way to dismiss the case on freedom of speech grounds before it goes to trial. No try? No online feeding frenzy.

In one sense, despite the state’s tenuous ties to Heard and Depp, the successful placement of the Virginia case was just an ordinary, savvy attorney. Then there was the less regular advocacy of one of Depp’s attorneys, Adam Waldman, who was released from the case in October 2020 after a judge found that Waldman had leaked confidential information to the press, according to Courthouse News.

Court filings show that Heard’s attorneys had sought sanctions against Waldman, accusing him of being a “publicity dog” who used legal channels to simultaneously wage an illegal digital public relations war against Heard by displaying documents, including audio recordings and surveillance footage the press and even passed it on to Twitter users without handing it over to Heard’s team. “Mr. Waldman’s continued efforts to manipulate the press and disregard disclosure requirements are wholly inappropriate and contrary to Ms. Heard’s rights to a fair trial and full and fair disclosure,” Heard’s team wrote. Waldman did not immediately respond at the Times’ request for comment.

Waldman became a central part of Heard’s own countersuit against Depp, who not only said Waldman defamed her by calling some of her allegations a “hoax,” but also noted that bot-like accounts on Twitter that defamed her, Oddly enough, Waldman also praised it. During the trial, Waldman declined to answer many questions in his own testimony due to attorney-client privilege.

After the jury found that Heard had slandered Depp, but that Waldman had also slandered Heard while acting as Depp’s representative, Waldman posted a text from Kanye West to his Instagram account: “The truth is only what you get away with, huh ?

One of Waldman’s other recent posts was a screenshot showing that he had been permanently suspended from Twitter for violating the platform’s policies.

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/story/2022-06-03/la-ent-depp-heard-institutions Old-school institutions helped create Depp-Heard internet firestorm

Sarah Ridley

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