Why could a defamation case have so many social consequences?
The topic that caught the attention of the entire Internet in May was the case Johnny Depp against Amber Heard for defamation in the United States. The defamation refers to the opening sentence of an article published in 2018 in the Washington Post by Amber Heard, in which the actress said that two years earlier she began to represent victims of domestic violence. According to the main reason for the lawsuit, the silent accusation that the actress is making is against Johnny Depp, which later ruined his career. Despite the speculation that is happening online, this case is not about punishing domestic violence or ascribing moral judgments, but about the validity of a sentence in the media. However, mainly because of the attention paid to the case, the numerous memes and the people who comment on it, this case raises many important questions about the reality of domestic violence, the right to privacy in the online space, and society today.
* Although we will not blame Depp or Heard, to look at the various issues that the case raises, we will look at some of the evidence and points in the case. We have no legal education and are not close to the participants in the case, as is the case with many people who comment online, so we strongly recommend looking at the sources at the end of the article if you are interested in the development of the case itself.
Violence against men
One of the most discussed pros and effects of the case is the topic of violence against men. Many men who are victims of violence, especially those victimized by women, do not share their experiences and do not seek help for fear of ridicule. Depp's confession of his mother's violence gives voice to this problem and how parental violence leads to violence by children later, especially in the case of men. The case helps many men realize that not only can they be victims, but that they may have had similar experiences.
The problem arises when people discussing the case cite this as a reason it should be believed that Depp is not an abuser. Instead of using the case as the beginning of activism to stop the stigma around male victims or around the structural problems associated with the problem, people use it only as an argument. Unlike those who support the Free Britney movement, the people who support Depp do not intend to continue the cause of male protection outside this case. This turns violence against men, like the common argument against feminist activists against domestic and sexual violence, into a gotcha argument, an oratorical way to confront the adversary instead of being a genuine concern. In many cases, the comments on the case are not related to the discussion of major issues but are a mockery of Heard. Also, in the case of many YouTubers, addressing the case is basically a marketing strategy to attract more views, not genuine interest.
Misogyny and anti-MeToo rhetoric
Many of the arguments in Depp's defence are backed by sexist rhetoric and insults to Heard, many of which are shared by celebrities on the American political right. The Daily Wire, founded by Ben Shapiro, known for his conservative views, spends between $ 35,000 and $ 47,000 on Facebook and Instagram ads to promote their articles against Heard. What's worse is that, as is typical of right-wing American publications, many of their articles are full of over-simplistic explanations, half-truths, or even outright lies. In addition to Shapiro's platform, another prominent Conservative figure who opposes Heard is Candice Owens. The key to these public figures is that, both before and now, they are very sceptical of the MeToo movement, which plays a key role in covering and commenting on the case online.
The rhetoric and terms that appear in comments about the case are downright sexist, even to the point of misogyny. Even if Depp is considered completely innocent of violence, which is not true, comments and hashtags online are completely unacceptable. Popular hashtags are #WeJustDontLikeYouAmber, #AmberHeardIsAnAbuser and #AmberTurd, and comments such as how Heard is a gold digger, psychopath, bipolar, manipulative, and how she deserves to be killed, are shared with Heard's story of abuse as background. Even if they are considered to be falsified, which, again, is not realistic, victims of violence who see the reaction live have less confidence that they will receive sympathy for sharing their experience, especially when defamation cases are a popular method to silence victims. to silence victims. In an email to VICE News, the simplistic understanding and commentary on the case, which excludes context outside the online space, illustrates how people see Depp and Heard as a hero and villain in a reality show:
"Because she has a vagina and Depp has a dick, the woman must be right. bElIEvE aLl wOmEN!”
At the same time, comments and questions from Depp and his lawyers raised during the trial would be considered completely unacceptable in another case of violence, but were ignored by commentators. Depp's messages were presented as evidence, in which the actor calls Heard an "ugly c*nt", a "worthless h**ker" and a "filthy wh*re" and makes a comment that apologizes as a joke, " Let's drown her before we burn her!!! I will f*ck her burnt corpse afterwards to make sure she is dead." Even if it's a joke, these comments were made in 2013, two years before he married the actress, who is 20 years younger than him. His lawyers’, in turn, questions to Heard were from the variation of why she did not seek medical help if she was so injured, which, especially after the discussions about MeToo for trauma and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) in victims of violence are misleading and unacceptable.
In addition to triggering many victims of violence, the case sets an unrealistic standard for credible evidence that an abuse victim must present. With photos and numerous witnesses, Heard has more than enough evidence that she survived violence. In contrast, in Ford's hearing on the sexual harassment of now-Supreme Court Justice Kavanaugh, the evidence she presented was detailed personal memories, four unnamed witnesses and a visit to a therapist years after the fact, the notes of which were not presented. However, many viewers sided with her, largely due to the lack of sympathy for Kavanagh as a celebrity and because of the explanations from experts, online and offline, about her lack of evidence. When Heard provided significantly more documentation that was rejected due to speculation of falsification, this has set an unrealistically high standard for evidence of violence.
It is this hearing that is a good explanation for why the American political right is so focused on a case for defamation. With more laws restricting Americans' privacy and right to private life, such as the discussion of removing Roe v. Wade and the Don't Say Gay Bill in Florida, backed by increasingly racially targeted shootings in the country, the Republican Party is trying to reverse the progress and social education that has come after MeToo and Black Lives Matter. As noted by the support of the popular conservative media, Fox News, Depp, a white, rich, famous American, was raised as an example of the attack on men by lying women, instigated by the witch hunt from MeToo. As usual, however, the fear is not based on truth, as evidenced by Depp's considerable support and the development of the case in Depp's favour. Even if it can be said that the case is personal and only the reputation of the actors depends on it, one cannot ignore how and why it was exploited by individuals, media and politicians who earn their living from misogyny and discrimination.
The phenomenon of True Crime civilian detectives
The basic problem that the case coverage revealed was the phenomenon of True Crime fans. True Crime is a genre of podcasts and documentaries or series that tell the story of crime, murder, and disappearances. The problem is that it often happens that fans of the genre, who are not in the police or in the legal profession, believe that they can interpret cases and crimes just as well as professionals. In the case of Depp and Heard, this leads to many of the more common memes.
One of the more popular ones is Milani Cosmetics makeup. The company published a TikTok explaining how the make-up was not available at the time of the attack, thus "proving" that the whole statement was untrue. The problem is that many lawyers use props to try to connect emotionally with jurors. Presenting a box of makeup as an example of how Heard covered her bruises does not mean that they present police evidence from which fingerprints could be taken. In a real court case, unless it is explicitly stated that an object is authentic, it is not deceptive to use props. The problem is that, like the ending of Legally Blonde, many viewers think that real cases depend on one small detail that will expose a whole lie, while the truth is much different.
Another example is body language experts who analyze Heard's gestures and facial expressions and condemn her for lying or manipulating. The truth is that body language experts do not exist, their expertise is not accepted as real science, especially because it is mostly based on stereotypes, prejudices and the idea that every victim reacts in the same way. When it is said that a sincere victim must cry when she talks about the brutal violence she has experienced, it raises unrealistic expectations that everyone will process and express their emotions in a similar manner. In addition, such "experts" completely ignore the existence of people with mental illness and problems, especially people with autism, who express their emotions differently than neurotypical people.
The big "lie" Heard was caught in is the donation of the money she received from the divorce. While she has signed a document with the ACLU that she promises to donate them, this is not yet complete, which proves a false intention for many people. In reality, this is standard practice for larger donations, especially when in the millions, because there are tax benefits to making donations in smaller amounts over a longer period of time. Instead of lying, this is a recommendation that a financial advisor would give. Also, to support the lack of lies, representatives of the organization themselves admit that Heard is honest and transparent with them all the time, which has made the process easier.
The biggest problem that arises from the phenomenon of civilian detectives is the full picture. As an argument for interpreting the case, many people emphasize how it should be watched fully in order to draw personal conclusions as if the case was the only evidence needed. While it is important, the point of legal cases is to question all the small details in the evidence and information, not to talk about the context. Such as the fact that a similar lawsuit was filed by Depp, again for defamation, in Great Britain, against the tabloid The Sun, which called Depp a "wife-beater." Interestingly, although it is well-known how difficult it is for the press, especially tabloids, to win a defamation lawsuit in the country, The Sun won, with 12 of 14 pieces of evidence presented to a judge accepted as credible. Additionally, Depp was tried for violence against a movie crew member and was accused by an ex-girlfriend of throwing a wine bottle at her.
In addition, the discussion on violence was not raised because the case is for identifying and punishing the perpetrator, but for defamation. According to Depp, an essay co-authored by Heard with the non-governmental organization American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) alleges the fact that he is an abuser, which has ruined his career. The sentences on which this is based are:
"I spoke up against sexual violence — and faced our culture’s wrath. That has to change."
"Then two years ago, I became a public figure representing domestic abuse, and I felt the full force of our culture’s wrath for women who speak out."
“I had the rare vantage point of seeing, in real time, how institutions protect men accused of abuse.”
Although the online discussion calls the case an abusive one, it is only for defamation, and it only happens because, in the state of Virginia, defamation can be pleaded even if a person’s name is alleged to, unlike in other states. And as for the loss of career opportunities, with the most frequently cited one being Disney and the Pirates of the Caribbean series, according to Disney representatives, Depp was not included because of his age, and there is speculation that the real reason is that they cannot afford his salary anymore. Given that many male actors and directors have been directly accused of sexual harassment and continue to work, one accusation of harassment rarely leads to the ruin of an entire career.
Social opinion in personal problems
The key and most criticized issue revealed by the case is the effect of viewers on lawsuits and the treatment of personal issues as reality shows. Apart from the negative effect of disturbing comments and hashtags online on victims of violence, the jurors could have been affected as well. Just as when we watch a nature documentary and sympathize with the predator or the prey, depending on the director's point of view, internet discussions and memes have an effect on the point of view of the jurors who decide the outcome of the case. After all, the TikTok algorithm is well known for its precision. While, from a personal point of view, who is right and who is wrong cannot influence the judgment of whether a fact is good or bad, this sets a dangerous precedent for future cases.
A video that has become popular is Heard blowing her nose. While the TikToks make the video look like the actress is sniffing something out of the napkin, the truth is that the video is strategically cut. In reality, the actress takes a napkin not from her lap, but from a box. However, the online space began to speculate on how Heard took drugs in court as if it were possible, and there is no danger of being tested for drugs.
While the relationship between the two actors was, evidently, highly toxic, and discussing the complete innocence of both sides requires ignoring facts and believing lies, Depp's favourable attitude is largely due to the actor's popularity. Many people who are fans of Pirates of the Caribbean or director Tim Burton's films treat the real actor and his personal life as a continuation of the fandoms (fan clubs) of the films. While Heard is less popular, Depp has been a figure in popular culture for two years before Heard's birth, through the movie Nightmare on Elm Street. This prompts many of the people discussing the case to think less critically about Depp than about Heard, somewhat blinded by their love of his movies.
Even if it is interesting to discuss big cases, especially when it comes to celebrities, the effect they have on society must undoubtedly be considered. Although sometimes there is a feeling that the online space is separate from reality, the comments we make online have an effect on people's daily lives and affect our point of view. The fact that the case is complicated, long, and involves celebrities, does not make it an episode of a series or part of Judge Judy. The people are real, with personal lives and real problems, and insults achieve nothing more than the silencing victims.
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