- A legal expert said the influence of social media is visible at every stage of celebrity defamation lawsuits.
- The case of Johnny Depp v. Amber Heard in particular has set the Internet on fire in unprecedented ways.
- “It’s as if it doesn’t matter what the facts are,” law professor John Culhane told Insider.
Johnny Depp’s ongoing trial against Amber Heard, which has kept the internet buzzing for the past six weeks, has often felt like it was taking place online in the court of public opinion, despite the real financial and reputational damages at stake.
It’s a symptom of social media’s growing malign role in the recent wave of celebrity defamation lawsuits, a legal expert told Insider.
“It’s as if it doesn’t matter what the facts are, especially in a case like this when there’s a lot of noise in the evidence itself,” said John Culhen, professor of law at the University of Delaware School of Law at Widener University.
The shocking effects of Twitter threads, Facebook posts, and TikTok videos in high-profile trials existed long before a lawsuit was filed and are still reverberating in the wake of the jury’s final decision. In short, social media encourages celebrity defamation lawsuits — justice is then cast in the court of public opinion, Culhane said.
Two major celebrity defamation experiments in recent weeks have put this theory to the test.
First, Blac Chyna sued Kris Jenner, Kim Kardashian, Khloé Kardashian, and Kylie Jenner for $100 million, alleging that they had unfairly spoken to her to E! executives five years ago after her split from Rob Kardashian, which led to the cancellation of the “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” spin-off series “Rob and Chyna.” In early May, two weeks after testifying, a Los Angeles jury finally rejected all of Blac Chyna’s allegations.
Meanwhile, Depp’s $50 million defamation case against his ex-wife Heard entered its sixth and final week on Monday. At the heart of the case is Heard’s 2018 Washington Post op-ed, in which she said she was a survivor of domestic and sexual violence. The piece did not mention Depp’s name, but Depp accused Heard of ruining his reputation and career by implying that he mistreated her. Heard ran $100 million.
Cohan told Insider that these and other cases have a common inducing factor.
“We know there are a lot of these high profile issues that are growing,” Culhane told Insider. “I attribute some of it to social media – the fact that people, and celebrities in particular, every move they make is amplified, retweeted, and shared in all sorts of different ways.”
Defamation trials have traditionally been a mechanism for affected people to restore their reputations, according to Culhane, who noted that celebrities involved in these particular cases fail to achieve the desired outcome. Still, he said, it makes sense why public figures are turning to defamation suits as a potential solution to their ailments.
“People in the public eye are very concerned about their reputation,” Culhane said. “They see defamation lawsuits as a way to restore or rehabilitate that reputation.”
While both Depp v. Heard and Blac Chyna v. The Kardashian-Jenners have provided celebrity witnesses, sordid details, and great media coverage, yet the former is the only one that has set the internet on fire in an unprecedented and often indecent way.
YouTube channels that were previously dedicated to covering video game content have been redirected to beta coverage for Depp v. Heard to reach millions of new views. Local and national brands are getting involved in the issue by posting inconsequential TikTok comments. And hashtags showing support for both Depp and Heard – though mostly Depp – have flooded Twitter since the trial began.
They are all examples of how social media can weaponize the case in beneficial ways outside of the courtroom.
“With social media, the biggest impact is on people who are not immediately involved in actual experiences,” Culhane said. “It’s the public perception.”
The changing nature of technology
Cohan told Insider that he has long believed that public court proceedings should be broadcast on television and made easily accessible. But the ways in which social media users chose the video from Depp v. Heard made him rethink that position.
“One of the things that led to this feeling of thirst is that it’s being televised,” he said. “If you didn’t have it… there would be little to chew on.”
TikTok users have ridiculed Heard’s emotional testimony in which she described the alleged sexual and physical abuse she says she suffered at Depp’s hands. Meanwhile, the app’s live stream has been repeatedly bombarded with streams playing Today’s Testimony.
The voyeuristic nature of the case prompted Culhane to come up with possible solutions, including allowing either party to a case involving allegations of domestic violence to request that it not be televised.
The ubiquity of social media has led to changes within the courtroom as well.
During the Blac Chyna case, a Los Angeles jury watched Snapchat videos of Chyna and Rob Kardashian flirting about hours before an alleged violent domestic dispute erupted between the two. The jurors in Depp v. Heard heard dozens of personal text messages between the actors and their famous friends read out in public.
“It just means there’s more evidence,” Culhane said.
Since the case of Depp v. Heard coming to a close, Culhane said the online media circus surrounding the trial is unlikely to produce positive results for either party, regardless of the jury’s decision.
“Whatever is true in this case,” he said, “I feel like both of their hearings are taking a beating.”
Culhane said there are rare people who can weather the proverbial storm and get out of these defamation cases unscathed, or even champions.
“These cases are tempting for a lawyer,” he told Insider. “A celebrity comes to you, even if you don’t think the case is the likely winner, it might boost your profile.”