TikTok’s hate machine Amber Heard


TikTok's hate machine Amber Heard

Anyone else who appears in court risks being made an internet folk hero or framed as a liar. Heard’s attorney, Elaine Charlson Bredehoft, is branded as “Karen” (once a term for a racist white woman that has since been flattened into a universally misogynist swear word) and conspiratorially constructed as an undercover dork fan, while Vasquez is cast as a dork becomes a love interest, hailed as an internet sensation for her “intimate” interactions with her client. Apparently every woman tangentially involved in the case was steeped in imaginary dork lust. dr Shannon Curry, an expert brought in by Depp’s team, was celebrated for “exchanging looks” with Depp on the stand; Even Curry’s husband, who she mentioned once delivering muffins to her office, has been inflated into a cherished fan fiction character dubbed “the muffin man.” Meanwhile, Depp supporters have harassed two of Heard’s reviewers from medical site WebMD, flooding their profiles with one-star reviews.

Internet live streaming of the trial has created its own virtual sport. Every day, hundreds of thousands of viewers gather on YouTube live streams, like the one hosted by Law & Crime Network, and enter comments into a racing sidebar chat. Some pay as much as $400 to have their comments highlighted and pinned to the top of chat—the more you pay, the longer your comment lasts the process. During Wednesday’s stream, a participant paid to say that Heard “has a nesting snake on his head”; Another promoted his YouTube novelty song about Heard’s legal team.

The immediacy of the live stream and its commentary give viewers the illusion that they can somehow influence the outcome of the case; Someone is always making the case for an internet artifact to be “forwarded to Camille,” as if just fans’ obsessive attention could solve the case. This week, Depp’s team called a witness who emerged after he posted a tweet in response to a pro-Depp Twitter account’s coverage of the trial.

While they cannot influence the process themselves, viewers can shape public opinion in real time. Once a fan fiction scenario gains enough momentum to reach escape velocity, it’s elevated to the mainstream tabloids, which are filled with accounts of Depp’s flirting in the courtroom and epic one-liners from the witness stand. Gossip journalists used to have to write celebrity stories themselves, but now narratives are being lifted straight from social media and enshrined as Hollywood canon. Gossip sites are rendering celebrity’s mundane internet activities as heartwarming Depp content: Jennifer Aniston followed Johnny Depp on Instagram as a “subtle show of support,” the magazine claimed, and Depp followed Aniston as a “cute gesture.”

But when Julia supported Fox Heard on Instagram, she soon became the focus of articles about how hypocritical and “downright stupid” she was. When a celebrity doesn’t come up with such dubious material, it can easily be made up: Recently, a YouTuber edited and dubbed test footage to make it appear as if Heard’s “Aquaman” co-star Jason Momoa had appeared in the stands to smack dorks to flatter attorney.

It’s tempting to ignore all of this – to refuse to feed the machine any more attention. But like Gamergate, which took an obscure controversy in the gaming community and inflated it into an internet-wide anti-feminist harassment campaign and a broader right-wing movement, this nihilistic circus is a potentially radicalizing event. When the trial concludes this week, the elaborate grassroots campaign to defame a woman will remain in place, now with an attached support base and a field-tested harassment handbook. All it takes is a new goal.

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