Amber Heard Hate Machine from TikTok

Anyone who appears in court risks being branded a popular internet hero or being called a liar. Heard’s lawyer, Elaine Charlson Bredehoft, is referred to as a “Karen” (once a term for a racist white woman, it has since been flattened into an all-purpose misogynistic slur) and conspiratorially constructed as an undercover Depp fan, while that Vasquez is cast as love Depp, hailed as an internet sensation for her “intimate” interactions with her client. Apparently every woman tangentially involved in the case has been imbued with Depp’s imagined lust. Dr. Shannon Curry, an expert witness called by Depp’s team, was celebrated for “exchanging glances” with Depp on the stand; even Curry’s husband, whom she spoke of once delivering muffins to her desk, was puffed up into a treasured fan fiction character called “the muffin man.” Meanwhile, Depp supporters harassed two of Heard’s expert witnesses on the professional health care site WebMD, flooding their profiles with one-star reviews.

The live internet broadcast of the trial has created its own virtual sport. Every day, hundreds of thousands of viewers flock to YouTube live streams, like the one hosted by the Law & Crime Network, and type comments into a racing sidebar chat. Some pay up to $400 to have their comments highlighted and pinned to the top of the chat – the more you pay, the more your comments dominate the proceedings. During Wednesday’s stream, a participant paid to say that Heard “has a snake nesting on his head”; another promoted his new YouTube song on Heard’s legal team.

The immediacy of the live broadcast and its commentary gives viewers the illusion that they can somehow influence the outcome of the case; someone is always pleading for an internet artifact to be “passed on to Camille,” as if obsessive fan attention alone could solve the case. This week, Depp’s team called a witness who surfaced after posting a tweet in response to coverage of the trial by a pro-Depp Twitter account.

Although they cannot influence the trial itself, viewers can shape public opinion in real time. Once a fan-fiction storyline gathers enough momentum to reach breakout speed, it’s elevated into the mainstream tabloids, which are replete with stories about Depp’s courtroom flirtations and one-liners. -epic liners on the witness stand. It used to be that gossip reporters had to create celebrity stories themselves, but now the stories are pulled straight from social media and enshrined as Hollywood canon. Gossip sites regurgitate mundane celebrity internet activity as heartwarming Depp content: Jennifer Aniston followed Johnny Depp on Instagram as a “subtle sign of support,” the magazine claimed, and Depp followed Aniston as a ” gentle gesture.

But when Julia Fox supported Heard on Instagram, she quickly became the center of stories about how hypocritical and “downright stupid” she was. When a celebrity doesn’t provide such questionable material, it can simply be made up: Recently, a YouTuber edited and dubbed test footage to make it look like Heard’s “Aquaman” co-star Jason Momoa, appeared on the stand to flatter Depp. lawyer.

It’s tempting to ignore all of this, to refuse to feed the machine with even more attention. But like Gamergate, which took an obscure controversy over the gaming community and turned it into an internet-wide anti-feminist harassment campaign and a broader right-wing movement, this nihilistic circus is a potentially radical. When the trial ends this week, the grassroots, elaborate campaign to smear a woman will remain, now with a hip support base and a field-tested harassment playbook. All it takes is a new target.

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