As a survivor of domestic abuse, Ruth M. Glenn said watching the Amber Heard-Johnny Depp defamation case has been triggering.
It’s not that she believes one side over the other. It’s more that the inescapable memes and jokes on social media emanating from the trial have exacerbated the trauma of surviving abuse to another level.
Depp and Heard have been in a weeks-long battle in a Fairfax County, Virginia, courtroom. The “Pirates of the Caribbean” actor is suing Heard for $50 million in damages over a 2018 essay she wrote for The Washington Post in which she said she had become the “public figure representing domestic abuse.” Although the essay never mentions Depp by name, his attorneys said it indirectly refers to allegations she made against him during their 2016 divorce. Heard is countersuing Depp, seeking $100 million in damages.
Glenn, who is chief executive officer of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, is among a contingency of social media users following the case who have been horrified by the way some on platforms like TikTok and Twitter have turned Heard’s testimony about alleged abuse she endured during her relationship with Depp into memes, jokes and lip syncs.
Hashtags like “AmberHeardIsAPsycho” or “AmberHeardIsALiar” have racked up billions of views on TikTok and Twitter. Even searching content that appears to be pro-Heard, like the hashtag “IBelieveAmberHeard,” typically yields videos and posts maligning the actor.
“I can’t imagine what this might be doing to someone who may eventually want to seek safety and support,” Glenn said. “Whether it’s Amber Heard or Johnny Depp, how dare us make fun and make light of someone who is sharing something very personal — no matter how we feel about that person.”
A spokesperson for TikTok declined to comment. TikTok’s community guidelines state that it does “not tolerate members of our community being shamed, bullied, or harassed.” The platform says it removes “expressions of abuse, including threats or degrading statements intended to mock, humiliate, embarrass, intimidate, or hurt an individual.”
A spokesperson for Twitter declined to comment.
Heard will take the stand again on Monday after the court’s brief break.
The outcome of survivors of domestic abuse seeing these posts could have what Glenn called “a chilling effect.”
Survivors say Heard-Depp posts make social media feel more toxic
For some who have survived domestic violence, watching the mockery play out on social media has reopened emotional wounds.
“For me, it takes me back to where I once was,” said Twahna P. Harris, who serves as chief executive officer and executive director of The Butterfly Society. The advocacy group, based in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, provides resources to victims and survivors of domestic violence.
“And that’s what happens,” she said. “You’re revictimized all over again. You’re not believable, apparently ... it makes you mad, it makes you angry. Until you’ve lived it, you will never understand.”
Harris, who herself endured three years of domestic violence and has been an advocate for survivors for more than 15 years, said the social media response is “very insulting to victims.”
“It’s a slap in the face to victims and survivors,” she said.
Memes at Heard’s expense have become full-on TikTok trends.
Regardless of your thoughts on it, domestic violence isn’t funny.
-Carey, 25, who has been following the case on tiktok
One audio clip of Heard describing an alleged incident of abuse has been lip synced by users nearly 5,000 times. In the clip, Heard says, “I was walking out of the bedroom, he slapped me across the face. I turned to look at him, and I said, ‘Johnny, you hit me.’”
In one of these TikToks, a ginger tabby cat in a blond wig re-enacts Heard’s testimony. As the testimony plays, a little plastic hand pretends to slap the cat across the face. The video, posted by user @heyitsgingerandpepper, was viewed more than 13.5 million times, according to Rolling Stone. It was later removed by TikTok, the user said. She did not provide further comment. TikTok declined to comment on the removal of this video.
Others have latched onto conspiracies, trying to disprove Heard’s testimony by picking apart her words, body language and behavior on the stand. On YouTube, creators have pivoted from their usual content to creating content about the trial, racking in millions of views.
“No matter how many times on Twitter and TikTok I’ve clicked ‘not interested’ in this kind of content, it’s still coming to the top of my page,” said Carey, 25, who asked that NBC News identify her by only her first name out of fear she could be harassed or doxed by Depp’s fans.
Carey has followed the legal issues between Depp and Heard since Depp brought a libel case against The Sun newspaper in the U.K. in 2020. The paper had called Depp a “wife-beater” in response to allegations Heard made. In November 2020, a judge ruled in The Sun’s favor.
While the social media vitriol was bad then, it’s even worse now, she said.
“No matter what your thoughts are on the case, I don’t understand the desire to make a mockery of it,” she said. ”Regardless of your thoughts on it, domestic violence isn’t funny.”
Experts fear real world consequences
As more and more content mocking Heard’s testimony floods social media, experts fear it could negatively affect victims of domestic abuse and potentially sway them to stay silent.
As it is, about 70 percent of domestic violence is never reported to the authorities, according to authors of the 2020 book “Making Sense of a Global Pandemic: Relationship Violence and Working Together Towards a Violence Free Society.”
“I thought I was living in another world,” Glenn said of seeing the social media content around the case. “I have never seen anything like this.”
Family law litigator and TikToker Limor Mojdehiazad echoed Glenn’s concerns, adding that she fears that victims could be internalizing the mass humiliation and shaming triggered by Heard’s accusations.
Mojdehiazad has been covering the case on TikTok as the trial develops. As someone who works closely with domestic violence survivors in her practice, Mojdehiazad said she wanted to help her more than 447,000 followers understand the nuance of each turn in the defamation case.
On Tuesday, she posted what she describes as a public service announcement for her followers, asking them to remember that while they may be having fun with the content they’re creating around the trial, “it’s not funny to re-enact audio of testimony of alleged DV [domestic violence].”
“I think there’s a lot of insensitivity and judgment around what domestic violence looks like … take away the fact that we’re talking about Johnny Depp and Amber Heard and whether they’re telling the truth or not,” Mojdehiazad said. “The bigger picture is there are victims of domestic violence also seeing this content.”
Some already fear speaking out about this topic. When contacted for this story, two domestic violence survivors declined to be identified by NBC News or share details about their experiences, citing one issue: fear that they could be harassed by Depp’s fans for speaking out against him.
Mojdehiazad said she hopes people viewing the case will eventually realize that the Depp-Heard trial proves the many challenges that domestic violence victims endure.
Even two wealthy, privileged celebrities like Depp and Heard can become victims of abuse — and a situation like theirs can also be difficult to escape, Mojdehiazad said.
“If everyone at this point stopped making fun of the testimony,” she said, “I think we need that to kind of die down so we can learn these valuable lessons.”
If you or someone you know is facing domestic violence, call the National Domestic Violence hotline for help at (800) 799-SAFE (7233), or go to www.thehotline.org for more. States often have domestic violence hotlines as well.
If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 800-656-4673. The hotline, run by the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), can put you in contact with your local rape crisis center. You can also access RAINN’s online chat service at https://www.rainn.org/get-help.