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The Ugly Ways TikTok Corrupted the Johnny Depp-Amber Heard Trial

A new NBC News documentary titled A Marriage on Trial: Johnny Depp, Amber Heard and Truth in the Age of Social Media is the latest deep dive into the celebrity defamation trial heard around the world—or seen everywhere on TikTok, more accurately.

It’s been a little over a month since a jury decided that Aquaman actress Amber Heard defamed her ex-husband, Pirates of the Caribbean star Johnny Depp, when she referred to herself as “the face of domestic abuse” in a Washington Post op-ed in 2018. Depp was awarded $15 million in damages (receiving $10.35 million due to the state’s punitive cap) and Heard $2 million for a counterclaim she won.

Since that stunning verdict, speculation about the ruling’s impact on future domestic abuse cases and the overall fate of #MeToo has incited fear and anxiety amongst feminists, survivors of abuse, and domestic violence organizations. Much has also been said about the role of social media in the Depp-Heard case and the way videos mocking, manipulating, and reenacting Heard’s testimony became nearly inescapable across social media platforms.

Likewise, the widespread harassment campaign against Heard led by Depp’s online army of supporters (and influencers who may not have otherwise cared about the case but were able to profit off it) has earned comparisons to #Gamergate with a more mainstream audience. Digital writers, many of them women, have done most of the heavy lifting in terms of investigating and editorializing how Heard became the most hated woman online and this phenomenon could affect other high-profile survivors in abuse cases.

Meanwhile, television networks like NBC have gotten in hot water for embracing popular narratives in line with Depp supporters, providing what many have viewed as unethical coverage on Today and jokes about the trial on Saturday Night Live, but seem to slowly be catching up to the more progressive discourse about the case.

That seems to be the goal of A Marriage On Trial, which aired on NBC News Now on Wednesday night and is available to stream on NBCNews.com and Peacock.

In a swift but impactful 30 minutes, the documentary attempts to frame Heard as a victim of online harassment and outline the disturbing ways an intimate matter between two celebrities became a virtual sport. Talking heads include one of Heard’s attorneys, Elaine Bredehoft; National Coalition Against Domestic Violence CEO Ruth Glenn; People Magazine editor Nigel Smith; American University law professor Jamie Abrams; and NBC News tech and culture reporter Kat Tenbarge. We also get plenty of soundbites from Depp supporters, including TikToker Gia Andreani, whose obsession with proving Depp’s innocence, which she discusses casually with a journalist, is one of the most jarring parts of the film.

A Marriage on Trial doesn’t have the aggressive point of view of a similar documentary like Framing Britney Spears. The film doesn’t set out to decide whether Heard was wronged by the jury—although Glenn and Bredehoft’s perspectives are notable. Rather, the documentary broadly illustrates the tragedy that occurs when private matters become public theater. Moreover, it highlights the inhumanity of platforms like TikTok and YouTube, where—aside from average users—profit-hungry influencers and toxic celebrity fandoms coalesce.

The first ten minutes of the documentary feels like an introductory course in the facts during and leading up to the defamation trial in Virginia, many of which were either manipulated or completely ignored by social media users. Experts mention the results of Depp’s prior defamation trial against U.K. tabloid The Sun, which found that he had committed “at least 12 acts of domestic violence including domestic violence, including sexual violence,” as Bredehoft states in the film. Heard’s attorney also brings up notes from Heard’s therapist documenting physical abuse that weren’t allowed to be submitted as evidence.

The social media element of the trial is both equated to the media frenzy surrounding O.J. Simpson’s murder trial and framed as a direct consequence of it. Both judges controversially permitted cameras in their courtrooms, allowing these disturbing incidents to be consumed like a “gladiator ceremony,” said Nigel Smith. In the documentary, we see footage of fans waiting outside the courthouse with signs and dressed in Jack Sparrow costumes, and workers giving spectators wristbands to view the trial like a concert.

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