Meghan Markle is getting the Amber Heard treatment
Online trolls are using a familiar playbook
Embedded is your essential guide to what’s good on the internet, by Kate Lindsay and Nick Catucci.
I think I’ve seen this film before… —Kate
The first video that appears when you search Meghan Markle on TikTok is titled: “Exact moment MEGHAN MARKLE Lies! Body Language analysis.”
“You know MM is lying when you see her mouth moving and words coming out,” one commenter wrote.
“Obviously she is comfortable, this is her big break,” another added. “The role of a lifetime.”
Hate for Meghan Markle is not new. The 31k-strong subreddit SaintMeghanMarkle, dedicated to tearing down “faux feminist Saint Meghan and her disciple Woke Prince Harry,” has been around since April 2021, and Piers Morgan has been writing angry Daily Mail screeds about her since 2018. The harsh press and social media coverage of the former actress was one of the primary reasons the couple decided to step back from royal life in January 2020, and is the subject of the recent Netflix documentary series, Harry & Meghan.
What is new for me is seeing the online hate in plain sight. When I was a writer at Refinery29, I covered many of Markle’s royal movements, from her walk down the aisle to her escape to California. I thought I had a pretty accurate read of the general sentiment towards the Duchess at that time. I was aware that there were communities of people that harbored an intense dislike of her. But I still believed that they were outnumbered by people who are above that sort of overt sexism and racism and who, frankly, had more important things to get mad about than the heirs fifth in line to the English throne. But over the past few months, I’ve watched my social media feeds slowly turn on the couple.
Before we go any further, it’s important we be clear about what, exactly, Harry and Meghan are accusing the royal family of, which is prioritizing The Firm’s relationship with the UK press over the wellbeing of a member of their own family. Of not protecting Markle from the press’s wrath the way they’ve protected others. Of refusing to acknowledge that the hate targeted at Meghan is more dangerous because of her race. The royal family could have leveraged their relationship with the press to quell the incessant critiques and coverage, Harry and Meghan claim, and the family did not.
Now, the hate that once festered in tabloids and the corners of Reddit is being boosted by algorithms, a sign that it’s gaining mainstream traction. A woman who detailed abuse at the hands of the British press and who claims she was prohibited from seeking mental health treatment while contemplating suicide is being casually referred to as “fake” and “annoying” in comments on clips of her describing that trauma. It's mind-boggling—and familiar. Meghan Markle is getting the Amber Heard treatment.
“When I realized that, for some reason, TikTok was serving me content about the trial that was consistently pro-Depp, not to mention thoughtless and reductive, I began quickly scrolling past those videos to try and prevent the algorithm from showing me more,” I wrote in May. “But no matter how much I have scrolled, how few nanoseconds I have spent on the videos, content about this trial has continued to balloon onto my feed … I genuinely feel insane.”
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That sense of confusion around Markle, of thinking I must have accidentally clicked on a dedicated hate account, only to realize, no, this is just how people feel, first surfaced in October. A TikTok video of a Variety interview with Markle in which she talks about controversial things like *checks notes* using Duolingo and watching The White Lotus, appeared on my FYP. These are some of the top comments:
“ME ME ME ME ME ME”
“Her vibes are all the way offfff”
“I just don’t feel like she comes across as likeable”
Make no mistake: These are gendered critiques. There is never a world in which a man is criticized with “ME ME ME” for answering questions in an interview of which he is the subject. There’s just something about her, people say, that rubs them the wrong way. But that something is then used as fodder to discredit her entire experience.
Why? Because Markle’s claims against the royal family, and Heard’s claims against Johnny Depp, are direct threats to a status quo through which power has been secured and distributed over centuries of sexism and racism. It’s easier to call two women manipulative and hysterical outliers than reckon with your own complicity in discrimination. If these women are taken seriously, then a structure so many people currently benefit from could be dismantled. Therefore, those who stand to lose even a shred of privilege are doing everything in their power to make sure that these women are not taken seriously. This means weaponizing the women’s careers, and recasting their claims as self-promotion. This means turning their admissions of traumatic experiences into jokes. This means using the tools of online warfare to completely flood the zone with these vile sentiments in hopes of making anyone who supports them feel like a minority.
In 2021, Bot Sentinel released three reports on the online hate accounts targeting Meghan and Prince Harry. It found that “fewer than one hundred single-purpose hate accounts were responsible for approximately 70 percent of the original and derivative hate-filled content targeting Harry and Meghan on Twitter.” Additionally, it determined that those accounts “strategically targeted and interacted with specific journalists and royal commentators to amplify their conspiracy theories and increase their exposure.” In total, nine out of the ten prominent Twitter accounts that cover the royal family had interacted with “at least one” of the 84 hate accounts Bot Sentinel had studied.
A year later, Bot Sentinel conducted a study related to the Depp v. Heard trial, and called the hate directed at Heard “one of the worst cases of platform manipulation and flagrant abuse from a group of Twitter accounts.” In total, they found “627 Twitter accounts focused predominantly on tweeting negatively about Amber Heard and her female supporters. Approximately 24.4% of the Twitter accounts tweeting negative Amber Heard hashtags were created within the past seven months.”
These accounts did their job. The public quickly turned on Heard and now, with Markle back in the spotlight with her podcast and documentary, they’re turning on her as well. The only benefit of having watched these attacks unfold is we now know the playbook. We’re potentially only days away from TikTok users lip-syncing Markle’s tearful recounting of fearing for her own life, the way users lip-synced Heard’s “Johnny, you hit me.” Rather than allowing ourselves to get caught up in an online movement we’ll later admit we should have known better about, we can know better now.