I met Amber Heard a few years ago. The woman I met on the phone and in person struck me as genuine and sincere as she spoke about her role as a Human Rights Champion of the United Nations Human Rights Office. I never imagined she would become the focus of creators who wanted to mock and monetize her tears. For the past few weeks, people have obsessed over her testimony in a defamation lawsuit brought by her ex-husband, with support from a surprising number of celebrities.
The trial is supposed to determine if Heard was defamed when she wrote that she would become a public figure representing domestic abuse. Instead, he accused Heard of abusing him and argued that the op-ed cost him a Pirates of the Caribbean film. The judge in the libel case against Depp wrote that he accepted that the man was a wife beater.
The clues that Heard would become an enduring target were there back in the year. I looked at her social media accounts prior to our phone interview and noticed that she was frequently insulted by her supporters. After the article was published, people who appeared to back Depp began to tag me in mentions of Heard. At the Social Good Summit, an event co-sponsored by the United Nations Foundation, the United Nations Development Programme, and the 92nd Street Y, similar accounts again attacked her.
I commented on my thoughts on Heard's passion for human rights, and someone who is currently following the trial replied, "That's because she needs to do overtime to make people forget about the kind of person she really is."
This narrative has driven a lot of the social commentary about the trial, including videos and meme. It has traditionally kept domestic violence victims silent. It is being weaponized by powerful celebrities and for profit by the creator economy, which should frighten anyone who cares about justice for survivors of intimate partner violence.
The belief that Heard is lying is underpinned by the fact that he is beloved by his fans and friends, who know him to be a decent human being. They insist that he is incapable of abuse based on his experience. I have written before about how dangerous character witnesses can be. It is painful to acknowledge that someone you admire or consider a close friend may have had an altercation with his partner. It is easier to vouch for the good character of the accused as a character witness.
Even the most horrendous violent person is not violent toward everyone all the time, according to the emerita professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
"Even the most horrendous violent person is not violent toward everyone all the time."
It may seem more justified in cases without a perfect victim. Heard admitted on the stand that she struck Depp. She told him that the world wouldn't believe a man who accused a woman of domestic violence. Heard was remorseful about insulting him during their fights, acknowledging that she and Depp lashed out at each other often.
Men can be victims of domestic violence, yet the trial doesn't prove Heard is lying about the assault. They show that a woman who says she has been harassed by her partner can also cause physical or emotional harm to him. There is no room online to think about the complexity of violent relationships.
Audiences see a man who has entertained them for years and a beautiful woman, decades his junior, who has punctured their fantasy of who he is when the cameras stop rolling. They may blame Heard for this, but it was the text messages entered into evidence as part of the trial that uncovered his musings about Heard ending up in the trunk of a Honda Civic. Some of the personal messages to Heard depict a man who deeply regrets his behavior during their fights, even if he is vague about what transpired.
The celebrity supporters of Depp have helped fuel the discourse that Heard is lying. Joe Rogan, who has tangles with the truth, called Heard a crazy lady.
If McCartney's gesture seems benign, consider that one notable person in the audience was the wife of Pearl Jam bassist Eddie Vedder and a Global Citizen ambassador. Ireland Baldwin commented that she knows women who use their womanhood to play victim and turn the world against the man.
The public doesn't know these cases, can't judge their merits, and personal knowledge of them doesn't amount to proof that Heard is lying.
At a Pearl Jam concert in Oakland last week, Eddie Vedder talked about having been to a concert with Johnny Depp and the Rolling Stones a long time ago, pausing to note that he was a complete gentleman.
Vedder is one of the few rock stars who is outspoken about gender equality and women's rights. He wrote a song about a woman in an abusive relationship. When your friend is accused and the cause feels righteous, loyalty matters more. I was stunned in the audience, with an N95 plastered to my face, and wondered how many people here now feel that a man known for his gender equality advocacy can dismiss claims of domestic violence based on enjoyable experiences with the accused.
The fans who want to tear down a woman for sport or vengeance should not be given cover by celebrities who don't understand or care about Heard's plight. Their testimony as character witnesses was the only firsthand evidence of Heard's alleged deception. If enough people say a man is good and decent, the victim must be lying.
What's to keep the average TikTok user defending an accused abuser from creating clips that insist the victim is lying?
Anti-fans can build an online identity and community around jeopardising a famous person, exactly what they want: a spark to further fuel their hatred. Anti-fandoms feature elements of a new paranoid style, and conspiracy theories can dominate as a result. Women in the public eye are targets of anti-fandoms, and Heard is no exception. There is a theory that Heard stole lines from The Talented Mr. Ripley to use as her own.
Non-famous domestic violence victims will be subject to the same obsessive scrutiny in their own communities. What should the average TikTok user do to keep the accused from making clips that the victim is lying? Both profitable and permissible have been made possible by Depp vs. Heard.
I can't judge how Heard behaved with Depp based on my experience. They had a volatile relationship. In a professional setting, I found her to be genuine and caring when I was not taking notes. I understand that people are complex. I would rather let the legal system prevail, with real evidence that is more compelling than my impressions of her character.
The public shouldn't cheer the digital abuse Heard has gone through, nor the mockery she is going through now. If her detractors, including her celebrity friends, will not stop for her, perhaps they will consider what their behavior will mean for domestic violence survivors.
You can call the National Domestic Violence hotline if you have experienced domestic or intimate partner violence. There are more resources on the website.