She supported Johnny Depp. Then she changed her mind
“The scariest thing about it was that it didn't feel like I was falling for propaganda at all.”
Embedded is your essential guide to what’s good on the internet, from Kate Lindsay and Nick Catucci.
Ever since the defamation trial between Johnny Depp and his ex-wife, Amber Heard, began on April 11, my feed has been overwhelmed with pro-Depp content, and I cannot escape it no matter how I try to show the algorithms that I’m not interested. Support of the actor has manifested in cruel memes that make light of domestic abuse and paint Heard as a lying manipulator.
To see people I follow participating in the pro-Depp propaganda has been one of the more jarring experiences I've had on the internet. Not all of this online activity is necessarily authentic. But there are real humans who whole-heartedly support Depp and not Heard. Thirty-three-year-old Laura was one of them.
Laura—who I connected with over Reddit, and requested that I only use her first name here—initially supported Depp and consumed pro-Depp propaganda. But after engaging in further research and discussions online, she changed her mind—no small feat in today's polarized social media environment.
Laura graciously agreed to talk to me, and I’m presenting her thoughtful answers in full (lightly edited for clarity) because they paint a revealing picture of the power and persuasion of the internet. —Kate
I've never seen a single Amber Heard movie, but Johnny Depp was by far my favorite actor growing up. I remember when we got a color printer when I was a young teenager—we tried not to use too much ink because it was expensive, so I carefully chose a few pictures of Johnny Depp to print out and covered the inside of my locker with them. I was obsessed. I sought out certain movies I otherwise would have had no interest in, just because he was in them. The obsession cooled a bit as I got older, but he was still one of my favorite actors and I treasured many of his performances.
I didn't really know much about Amber Heard when her initial allegations became public, but I knew women who had been abused. I knew that, contrary to what some may believe, women don't stand to gain anything from making such accusations. The world has never really supported women who accuse powerful men of assault, and it still doesn't. I saw people speculating that she was a liar, and I posted on Facebook in support of her. Why would she lie?
Like many others, my support changed sides when I first heard the recordings of Amber (on Reddit, I think?) that seemed to show her being cruel and abusive. Taunting Johnny, admitting to hitting him. I was horrified. Here, it seemed, was concrete evidence showing that she had been the primary abuser. As a feminist, it's important to me to support anyone who claims abuse—emotional, physical, sexual, or otherwise—and too often, men who come forward aren't supported. All of the Reddit comments were tearing her apart and I thought, Well, this recording isn't faked, so she must be the monster in this situation.
The thing that convinced me the most was the recordings themselves, but I would be lying if I said that the sheer volume of Depp support [online] wasn't a factor. Amber's side didn't factor into things anymore, because it seemed like there wasn't even another side. The whole internet, it seemed, was on Johnny's side. I didn't hear a single person speaking out in support of her. Not one. And the recordings seemed like a smoking gun. Sure, she had bruises, but ... there she was, admitting to hitting him. There were also men (and some women) in the comments section, saying that the recordings gave them chills, because she reminded them of their abusive ex. I wanted to believe survivors, so I believed them.
I never went on TikTok or YouTube seeking out pro-Depp content—I mostly stayed away, just clicking on links when they would pop up on Reddit, to a chorus of loud support for Johnny and vicious attacks on Amber (but she was the monster, right?). The whole thing made me feel sad, so I mostly avoided it, probably upvoting or liking the occasional post or comment in favor of Johnny. I didn't follow the UK trial at all—if I had, my opinion would have been vastly different.
Once this trial started, though, it was completely inescapable. Where my Instagram explore page was once full of pretty decor and corgi puppies, now it was full of trial clips showing Amber getting totally owned, or video clips of Johnny and Winona Ryder looking all lovey in the '90s. Even innocuous subreddits like r/MadeMeSmile were posting clips of Johnny being supposedly wholesome and adorable, doodling while on the stand. Things kind of took a turn then. I didn't click on any of this content except by mistake, because I was starting to feel weird about it, but it was completely everywhere.
The first little chip in my support of Depp happened maybe a year or so ago, when I found out about the disgusting texts he had sent to Paul Bettany. When I read them—especially the one about wanting to drown her, burn her, and rape her burnt corpse—I felt absolutely sick. In all my Reddit browsing, I had never heard about these texts before. They never came up—people were too busy posting about how Amber was a monster. Somehow, though, that wasn't enough to completely erode my support, though it became a bit more tepid then. I thought, well, those texts are obviously inexcusable, but that doesn't mean he's not a victim of her abuse.
I then settled on a version of enlightened centrism about the case, which feels completely bananas to me now. (Maybe off topic, but I believe centrism is completely useless in politics, and it's certainly useless here. I should have known better.) I thought, Well, clearly they both suck! It was just a toxic situation, maybe there was some degree of mutual abuse (which I've since learned is not a thing ... something I should have known better at the time). And still I considered him the primary victim. Again, the support for Depp was so ever-present that I had absolutely no idea of the arguments on Amber's side. Perhaps I could have sought them out, but it seemed like they simply didn't exist.
The thing that really changed my mind was lurking on a particular subreddit—r/blogsnark. When the trial began, I was completely shocked to hear the reactions there. The support for Amber was overwhelming. It felt jarring. Didn't these people know that she was the monster, or at least the primary abuser? Why are they spending so much time defending her? The cognitive dissonance was wild. In all my time on the internet, this was the only time I saw support for Amber, and the things they were saying were in complete opposition to everything I was reading on other subreddits, and also just absorbing from the wider culture.
Initially, I wanted to look away, thinking they were simply wrong. I was trying to support a victim—Johnny, I thought. But every single week, there would be thread after thread defending Amber and explaining how Johnny was the toxic one. And I started to learn things I'd never heard before. I was vaguely aware that Johnny had lost his defamation trial in the UK, but I didn't know what that meant, really. I didn't know how hard it was to lose a defamation case, and that the judge ruled that 12 of 14 assaults really did happen. I was also pretty horrified to learn that Johnny is close friends with Marilyn Manson—I'd been following Evan Rachel Wood quite closely and had recently watched her documentary in which she discusses her abuse. What kind of person could be friends with a disgusting abuser like [Manson]? But initially, it still didn't seem possible that the entire internet could be wrong, so I avoided digging deeper for a while. But eventually, it became overwhelming, and I knew I had to look at the evidence for myself. This was clearly bigger than this one court case. If what these Redditors were saying was true, we were witnessing the complete character assassination of an abuse victim on a global scale. This was no time for sitting on the fence.
Having been raised in a very conservative religious household, and now being a feminist somewhere left of liberal, I'm no stranger to changing my mind on really important things—I've had some practice at admitting I'm wrong. But this felt different. The scariest thing about it was that it didn't feel like I was falling for propaganda at all. I didn't feel like I was being manipulated, though of course I was. I was simply going along with what the whole world was thinking, and there was no other side to the story—which, of course, should have been the clearest sign that it was propaganda. The whole thing started to feel really insidious, like it had been expertly astroturfed, and like I had been manipulated to support an abuser. This situation has definitely changed forever how I will look at information on the internet.
I believe and support Amber Heard because my initial read of the situation was correct: She has absolutely no reason to lie. What has she gained from this? Her career has stalled, she is on the receiving end of an onslaught of online abuse I cannot even begin to fathom, and the whole world thinks she's a monstrous abuser. What has she gained, really? The opportunity to be dragged into court over and over, costing her millions of dollars? Even if I really truly despised someone, making up abuse claims to ruin their life would never, ever be worth it—the price is far too high. It's hard enough being an average woman on the internet. No woman would choose this. Period.
But there is also a mountain of evidence on her side. There's the UK defamation suit. There's the testimony of her friends, her makeup artist, even Johnny's assistant confirming that he kicked her. How much does a woman have to tear herself open to be believed? I don't think there's any evidence that would convince diehard Depp stans. If there are photos of bruises, well, she must have painted them on or done it to herself. If there are texts and recordings describing her fear, well, it proves that she is manipulative. If she has witnesses, she must have paid them and given them a script! If there are doctor's reports, well, why aren't there more?
I've long been fascinated by the whole QAnon phenomenon and it's hard not to see the parallels. In order to disbelieve [Heard], you have to believe that she started planting fake evidence of abuse going back to 2013, and that she was somehow able to hide any evidence of her own "abuse" towards Johnny until 2015 or so, when it seems she started fighting back. (We would cheer for her if she were a movie heroine fighting her abuser, but since she's a real, flesh-and-blood woman, we tear her evidence apart and say that fighting back makes her just as bad.) I even saw one Reddit commenter confidently assert that he could tell Amber is a narcissist, because—I kid you not—her handwriting is too nice. This is QAnon 2022, with the Q drops being daily TikToks analyzing the secrets hidden in Amber's body language. This trial has given people brain worms, and it is beyond depressing to see how much so many people really, truly hate women.
I can't believe it took me this long to see it. A friend of mine was in an abusive relationship years ago—it's not my place to give details of that abuse, but her boyfriend was so horrible to her, it would make your skin crawl. And yet he is the one who called the cops on HER when she pulled on his arm to prevent him from leaving an argument. He tried to make her look like the abuser, and it's such a classic abuser tactic I can't believe I didn't see the parallels before now. Johnny is doing the same thing to Amber now in the courts, in front of the whole world. And it makes me sick.
I know that I will likely encounter Depp fans in the future, and I think it's worth speaking up, but I'm not looking forward to it. In discussions I've seen online, there is often a rabidity to the Amber hate that makes it hard to imagine having a productive discussion. But I'll do my best.
It's impossible not to see this as a backlash to #MeToo—like women have gone too far. Okay, ladies, we listened to you and locked a couple of men up. Don't get too greedy, now. Which of course ignores [the fact] that there are so many powerful men who have yet to experience any true consequences for their horrible actions. There's also the fact that of course Johnny has portrayed so many beloved characters over the years, and it's hard for people to give that up. Come on, he's Captain Jack Sparrow!
This is a little harder to speak about, but I do think there's an element of liberal purity at play. Liberals want to show that they support victims of abuse, and they know that men who have been abused are often not believed. There's something delightfully counterintuitive about a man who is rich, powerful, and incredibly famous becoming a victim of abuse by a younger, pretty blonde woman who has less power. People find that surprising—I think it probably hits the reward centers of our brain, like when you learn a new, weird, surprising fact. So when you combine the fact that he's a beloved actor from our childhoods, the fact that we want to show we support victims of abuse (even and especially when they might be surprising), and the so-called "smoking gun" of the recordings of Amber, it becomes easy to see why this has taken such hold of the culture. Supporting Depp is an easy way to show that you care about all victims of abuse, regardless of gender. And of course when liberals support Depp, it becomes easy for the right to feed on that as a backlash to #MeToo, like, Look, libs: women ARE going too far and DO have too much power!
It's been really weird being on the internet since I had my revelation and started supporting Amber. It can make you feel crazy. It feels like I'm being gaslit. But supporting Amber is worth it—for Amber's sake, and for the sake of all the abuse victims out there who are taking this trial as a sign they should stay silent.