Critics of the livestreamed defamation trial between actors Johnny Depp and Amber Heard say it's too bizarre to offer teachable moments. They say it's entertainment, a sordid spectacle, a mess of rabid fans and exploitative influencers. They argue there's too much energy spent analyzing how this event fits into the culture, reflects it and refracts it.
But many experts in violence, moral reasoning and domestic abuse say the case is an important cultural moment. It shows who we believe, how we believe, and the lengths people go to convince themselves their beliefs are true.
"The question about why we see different things in this case is deeply influenced by the moral judgment that we make first. That judgment kicks in a number of motivated processes. When you already want to believe something, you need less evidence to keep believing it and you're more willing to accept any evidence that is in favor of it without thinking more deeply about it," said David Pizarro, a professor in the Department of Psychology at Cornell University who studies how biases affect moral judgment. "When you're presented with information that goes contrary to what you believe, then you actually start thinking more deeply about it in order to counterargue."
Depp is suing Heard for $50 million, claiming she defamed him in a 2018 Washington Post op-ed where she referred to herself as “a public figure representing domestic abuse.” According to Pizarro's framework, if someone makes the moral judgment that Depp is likely an example of a man falsely accused, they will look for information that confirms that belief and evaluate it less carefully than the information that disproves it, which they have to work harder to dismiss. The same process occurs for the person who makes the moral judgment Heard is likely an abused woman denigrated by the culture when she should be believed.
This can look like Depp's supporters using audio of Heard admitting to slapping Depp as incontrovertible proof that she was the relationship's primary aggressor while downplaying audio where he said "Shut up, fat ass" to Heard after she told him to put his "cigarettes out on someone else."
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Experts in domestic violence say toxic, unhealthy relationships can include bidirectional violence with no primary aggressor, and abusive relationships with a primary aggressor can include victims who use violence as self-defense or as a way to try and reassert control. No single audio clip can paint a complete picture of the dynamics of a half-decade long relationship.
Everyone is, broadly speaking, watching the same trial – albeit interacting with different snippets, tweets and takes – but coming to vastly different moral conclusions about what the evidence shows. (This is not a criminal case deciding guilt or innocence, but a civil one deciding whether Heard was allowed to publish her op-ed.) Reactions to the case online and off – from TikTok videos to Depp's giggling trial audience to the people taunting Heard as she walks into court – are colored by biases, assumptions and personal experiences.
Mixed in are a contingent of social media users – from body language "analysts" to "Bachelor" alums – many of whom may use the trial to gin up attention for themselves, often contributing to misinformation about trauma and abuse.
Nicole Bedera, a sociologist who studies sexual victimization and perpetration, says many people who have experienced domestic and sexual violence are avoiding the trial, which may also be contributing to bias. On social media, coverage of the case is overwhelming pro-Depp. Bedera says survivors who can't watch the trial but who may want occasional updates are likely also being fed pro-Depp content.
"It's unsurprising that the people who were on the front-end really excited to tweet about it, to make TikToks about it, to create an entire following about it are the ones who are going to have the least amount of personal experience with this type of violence," Bedera said.
Personal biases influence how people think of perpetrators and victims
Intimate partner violence – which can be physical, sexual, emotional or economic – is a public health problem that affects millions of people in the United States each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 1 in 4 women and nearly 1 in 10 men have experienced some form of intimate partner violence.
Some of the most prominent domestic violence organizations – which advocate on behalf of victims of any gender – say it is not their policy to take a position on specific cases, but they have criticized reporters and social media users for sensationalizing trauma and perpetuating victim-blaming narratives. These narratives can make it harder for victims to seek help and make it more difficult for people to offer support or hold perpetrators accountable, including friends, family, jurors, judges and law enforcement.
Bedera said research shows people have a very specific idea of what a perpetrator of intimate partner violence looks like. Some of those assumptions are gendered, some are racist, and some developed as a way for people to cope in societies where interpersonal violence is pervasive. It's uncomfortable, Bedera says, for people to think someone they care about or admire or did not initially think was threatening could deceive them in that way.
People also have specific ideas about what a victim looks like – meek, virtuous, non-retaliatory, female. Perfect.
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"Everybody brings something from their own experiences to issues of domestic violence," said Kiersten Stewart, director of public policy and advocacy at the nonprofit Futures Without Violence. "We bring our own thoughts and ideas, and our personal experiences as well. And whenever somebody has personal experience with an issue, that often can be very deeply felt."
Those personal experiences can create empathy or disdain for either Depp or Heard.
"It's a sad situation, in terms of how the public is responding to it," said Sherry Hamby, founding editor of the American Psychological Association journal Psychology of Violence. "There are so many biases. And not just the conscious biases, but also these unconscious cognitive ones."
Dynamics of abuse
Depp's lawyers did not put a domestic violence expert on the stand, though they did call Laurel Anderson, the couple's former marriage counselor who testified that there was "mutual abuse" in the relationship. (Experts in domestic violence say the term "mutual abuse" is a misnomer since abuse is typically about one person wanting power and control over the other.)
Heard's team called domestic violence expert Dawn Hughes, a forensic and clinical psychologist who has worked in the Family Violence Program of the Nova Southeastern Community Mental Health Center and was the research coordinator for the Sexual Abuse Survivors Program at Nova Southeastern University. Hughes evaluated Heard for approximately 29 hours and diagnosed her with post-traumatic stress disorder caused by what she said was Depp's intimate partner violence.
While Hughes was criticized for speaking in gendered terms about abuse (she/her for victim and he/him for perpetrator, which she explained was based on her conclusion that Heard was the victim in the relationship), she remains the only person at the trial who has testified about what abusive behaviors look like and how victims can respond. Hughes disagreed with the findings of Shannon Curry, a psychologist hired by Depp’s side who testified that Heard was "exaggerating" her symptoms and suffers from a borderline personality disorder and histrionic personality disorder. Hughes said Curry's methods used during her evaluation were flawed.
Hughes's testimony did not appear to provide any pendulum effect, at least on social media. On TikTok, the hashtag #JusticeForJohnnyDepp currently has nearly 15 billion views and growing. The hashtag #JusticeForAmberHeard has 51 million. Experts say because many people do not view Heard as a "perfect victim," they refuse to believe she may be a victim at all.
"The public often expects victims of domestic violence to be perfect people. They want this pure, often passive view of them," Stewart said. "But someone can be angry. Someone can fight back, and they're still a victim of domestic violence."
Those most qualified to view the case objectively are domestic violence experts, many of whom say the public's treatment of Heard in particular stems from deeply entrenched myths about domestic violence, including that false reports of domestic and sexual abuse are common (they are not) that victims would never fight back (they sometimes do), that a victim would have left if it was that bad (leaving is harder than one might think), that narrative inconsistencies expose a liar (memory distortion is a feature of trauma) and that all abusers perpetrate in every relationship (they don't).
'It’s not just the survivors who are listening, perpetrators are also listening'
The Depp and Heard case is highly sensationalized. Depp's fans are screaming his name outside court and jokes about the case are being made on "SNL." In a since-deleted TikTok, singer Lance Bass mockingly reenacted Heard’s testimony.
"Some of what we have seen so far ... can work to further harm. From the headlines to the memes to the hashtags, these messages are perpetuating stigma and victim-blaming and – very likely – operating to further isolate and silence survivors," said Deborah J. Vagins, president and CEO of the National Network to End Domestic Violence. "It’s not just the survivors who are listening, perpetrators are also listening."
While social media reaction to the case has been cruel and derisive, Stewart cautions against making broad generalizations based on that content.
"I don't know if people are watching the trial that closely and ... the algorithms exist to feed you what you're interested in," she said. "It's almost a tautology. So when you measure how many times somebody's seen something, realize that they've been fed that too. I do think it's important that we not assume that what we're seeing on social media is indeed true public opinion."
How will we view the Depp, Heard case in 10 years?
Pizarro said moral judgments can evolve over time, and he expects people who feel fervent about the case now may think differently about it once it concludes.
"We have at least some evidence that these highly emotional judgments do change over time," he said. "In 10 years, if it turns out that there was more to Amber Heard's testimony than people gave her credit for, people will selectively remember that they thought that the whole time. ... They'll say, 'I always knew there was a chance.' They just don't want to be wrong."
It's possible people may also reexamine the humiliation of Heard. Her experience is reminiscent of other cases where women were publicly scorned and later reevaluated, including Lorena Bobbitt, Monica Lewinsky, Anita Hill and Britney Spears.
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Experts say the trial highlights structural problems – in media reporting, in the power of social media platforms, in the way gender inequality is addressed, in the way the justice system may become weaponized, in the way we all become complicit in retraumatizing people who have experienced profound harm.
"It's all coming together at once, and of course one day we're going to revisit it. But revisiting won't be enough," Bedera said. "It's why it's so important to figure out how to get this right the first time."
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If you are a victim of domestic violence, The National Domestic Violence Hotline allows you to speak confidentially with trained advocates online or by the phone, which they recommend for those who think their online activity is being monitored by their abuser (800-799-7233). They can help survivors develop a plan to achieve safety for themselves and their children.
Safe Horizon's hotline offers crisis counseling, safety planning, and assistance finding shelters 1(800) 621-HOPE (4673). It also has a chat feature where you can reach out for help from a computer or phone confidentially.
Survivors can also call the New York City Anti-Violence Project's 24/7 English/Spanish hotline at 212-714-1141 and get support. If calling is not safe but email is possible, make a report at avp.org/get-help and leave safe contact information, and someone will reach out.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Amber Heard, Johnny Depp and what we choose to believe from the trial