On February 15, 2023, France 5 (a French TV Channel) has broadcast a new episode of its programme “La fabrique du mensonge” (the lie factory) dedicated to the case between actor Johnny Depp and actress Amber Heard, who were married between 2015 and 2017, in 2022, a documentary by Cécile Delarue and Elsa Guiol. In this programme, we discover the power of influence of the masculinist movements.
The masculinist movements
The masculinists form a community, mainly male, but not only. These people believe that the place of women is not where it has been for the last few decades, with a more traditional vision of the position of women and men (while remaining of course in a very binary vision of society). Equality would be a danger for the organisation of society. It is a very broad ideology, with different currents. For example, some of them, the incels, “involuntary celibates”, blame women for their sexual misery and are recognised as a terrorist group in the United States, with sexist killings having already taken place. The American far right also has a place in this, feeding off these ultra-conservative and anti-feminist discourses. One of the most famous masculinists, Andrew Tate, has millions of views and subscribers on social networks and his hateful content is still online, despite his arrest for pimping. The #MeToo movement, which started in 2017 and led to women speaking out about the violence they had suffered, has increased their numbers and their hatred.
This extremely powerful movement on the internet is able to organise itself like an online “army”. Indeed, what becomes dangerous and explains their power is that their members are very familiar with the functioning of computer tools, especially algorithms on social networks, allowing them to increase their audience and to blur any discourse different from their own. Their “soldiers” will harass their victims with messages full of hate, misogyny, degrading and/or threatening images, direct threats of all kinds (from assault to murder, including rape), most of the time anonymously. They spread misinformation on social networks in order to convert others to their cause. This is a mission they have set themselves in the context of the Heard/Depp affair to discredit Amber Heard, recognised as a victim of domestic violence, and in a broader sense, the entire #MeToo movement.
The Heard vs Depp case
Let’s first look back at the context of this trial. In April 2018, Amber Heard published an article in The Sun, a British newspaper, in which she presented herself as a victim of domestic violence, without ever naming Johnny Depp. He filed a complaint in June, explaining that the accusations would damage his career. A first defamation trial was held against The Sun in London in 2020, a trial that Depp lost, without being able to appeal. The English court upheld 12 of the 14 counts of domestic violence against him: there was therefore no defamation. Unable to appeal the decision, Johnny Depp then requested a new trial, this time directly against his ex-wife, in Virginia, USA, which took place in 2022. The trial was filmed and broadcast live on Court TV, a channel dedicated to court cases and this type of broadcast. It should also be noted that in the US trial, unlike the one in London, the verdict is taken by seven jurors from civil society, not judges, who can thus, despite all precautions, be more influenced by what they see circulating on social networks than professional judges.
The desire to film it came from Johnny Depp’s team, who were well aware of the existence of these movements, which could play a role in his defence and in the public opinion in his favour (the final goal pursued since his complaint was justified by a negative impact on his career).
The social networks quickly took up the case, especially the masculinist bloggers. The trial was followed by thousands of people live, notably on Twitch channels and other platforms, where these pro-Depp masculinist influencers commented for hours on the various testimonies, glorifying the words of Depp and his defence team.
Cécile Delarue and Elsa Guiol’s report shows us that this was not by chance. Indeed, we learn that Depp’s lawyer approached masculinist YouTubers and bloggers before the trial began and provided them with recordings of arguments, exchanges and messages from the couple. These people then edited them to make Johnny Depp appear innocent and to demonise Amber Heard. This method of modifying information, by taking simple pieces of information and reorganising them to their advantage, was used throughout the trial to shift public opinion.
The documentary also presents the example of a make-up palette that was used during the trial to illustrate that she was using make-up to hide the marks of her injuries, a Milani palette. The brand made a TikTok video saying that this range did not exist at the time of the incident. However, Amber Heard never claimed that it was precisely this product that she had used. However, in the eyes of the public, this became the ultimate proof of her lie, and Milani pulled off a huge publicity stunt, siding with the majority.
As we said, masculinists master algorithms. For example, they created the #justiceforJohnnyDepp, which they managed to get and keep on Twitter trends. When something is on trend, the content can appear on the news feed of users who were not yet following the story. They then receive biassed information and can, in this way, rally to their cause. Many of us have been manipulated. Johnny Depp has been portrayed as a hero, a victim fighting against the deceitfulness of a woman, Amber Heard, who has been portrayed as crazy, lying and manipulative. She has been totally discredited, her testimonies mocked. The most shocking example is her testimony recounting a scene of marital rape, which became a trend on TikTok and was mocked by Internet users, often by very young people, not trying to understand the impact this can have on all victims. An online petition to have Amber Heard removed from the film Aquaman 2 collected 4 million signatures, making it the most signed petition against a person in the world (according to actress Rose Lamy). This seems paradoxical when many other causes seem to deserve as much attention and yet do not attract as many clicks.
This almighty power of the masculinists is partly explained by the lack of interest of the mainstream media. Indeed, a lawsuit between two film stars is considered to be at the level of the tabloids, not seeing the wider impact it could have. This media vacuum therefore left room for the masculinist narrative.
Which signal for the victims?
The Depp-Heard case, through its exposure on social networks and its omnipresence throughout the second trial, has shown a sad reality. While one might think that it would be older, conservative people who would relay this kind of talk, this case has shown that many people under the age of 25 were participating in this hatred of Amber Heard. This post-#MeToo generation seems to be attracted to a reactionary discourse, assuming that women lie, supporting the concept of rape culture, making excuses for the perpetrator, blaming the victims and denigrating the seriousness of the abuse.
One of the revelations of this trial is the fact that in order to be believed, heard and supported, a victim must correspond to the image that society has of the “good victim”: a fragile, innocent, weak victim who remains silent, the victim of an unpopular man who is known to be violent. But in this case, it is much more complex than that. She is cold, she is beautiful, as a young actress who is up against a powerful and famous man, we think she is self-serving. As an actress, her crying is seen as acting. Also, it is a misunderstanding of abusive relationships to believe that the “good victim” should not want to deal with her abusive ex-partner, not want to face him. This hatred of Heard reflects outdated notions of the “perfect victim” which imply that a woman who defends or injures an abusive partner and then speaks out is not a victim. It seems that in this couple there was violence on both sides, but this should not erase the fact that she is a victim of domestic violence.
Johnny Depp, on the other hand, cannot, in public opinion, be seen as an abuser. He is a wonderful actor, he has children, and Vanessa Paradis, his first wife, testified on his behalf. He performs, the public laughs when they see him drinking at 9am and insulting his wife. The bias is clear: people want their favourite actor to win.
One masculinist influencer wrote: “This trial is bigger than Depp. What I want to do is destroy the idea that women should be believed. Men’s rights matter”. This lawsuit really appears to be a revenge by masculinists against the #MeToo movement. It shows once again that when a woman speaks out, she puts herself in danger, and not only in front of the claimed masculinists, but also in front of the easily influenced public opinion.
Johnny Depp has won this case. He has regained his lost popularity, is hailed as a hero. In addition to this, Amber Heard, who, as a reminder, was found by a court to be a victim of domestic violence, and who has been a victim of online hate for years now, has to live under a false name in Europe. Regardless of what one thinks of Depp or Heard, what has been going on in the margins of this case is very disturbing for all women, and for all victims.
To go further…
“La fabrique du mensonge, Saison 3 : Affaire Johnny Depp/Amber Heard – La justice à l’épreuve des réseaux sociaux”, France TV (In partnership with Marie-Claire & France Info), directed by Cécile Delarue & Elsa Guiol broadcast on February, 12, 2023, available here until July, 12, 2023 – 1h42.
Je vous salue salope : la misogynie au temps du numérique, by Léa Clermont-Dion & Guylaine Maroist, documentary film, 2022.