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Social media sides with Johnny Depp in trial with Amber Heard

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

The trial between actors Johnny Depp and Amber Heard seems to be everywhere these days, on the news, in the tabloids and especially on TikTok. Depp sued his ex-wife for defamation for an op-ed she wrote in The Washington Post in 2018 about being a survivor of domestic violence. And though there is still plenty of trial to go, social media has already reached its verdict. The one-time "Pirates Of The Caribbean" star is gaining far more sympathy online than Heard is. To discuss this case and the reaction to it, we're joined now by sociologist Nicole Bedera. She's joining us from Salt Lake City. Nicole, thank you for joining us.

NICOLE BEDERA: Thank you for having me.

RASCOE: So social media users, they really seem to be taking Depp's side in this case. Like, you look at the hashtag #IStandWithAmberHeard on TikTok, that hashtag has around 2.4 million views - million with an M - while #JusticeForJohnnyDepp has more than 6.8 billion with a B - views. Why do you think that is?

BEDERA: I think there are a lot of reasons for that. One of them that's really simple, and that we cannot overlook is, in a defamation case, Johnny Depp gets to go first. And so his side of the story has been told in full. And a lot of people made up their minds after week one of the case or day three of the case. But the other reason is that in online spaces, we often see that men's rights groups and other anti-feminist groups are better organized. We know that men's rights activist forums, for example, have been following the Heard case pretty carefully.

RASCOE: Do you think it's also this thing of because Johnny Depp is such a big star, you know, the idea of him doing something untoward is hard for them to accept?

BEDERA: Yeah, this is something I say a lot. We all think that sexual violence is wrong and say that we will believe and support survivors, up until the perpetrator is someone we know and like. You don't want to feel like you're a bad person if you continue to like "Pirates Of The Caribbean."

RASCOE: During the trial, Johnny Depp has accused Heard of assaulting him and said that he is a victim of domestic violence. Like, how has that played out on social media, especially because I know you said a lot of these men's rights groups have attached on to this?

BEDERA: So in our society, we expect that victims fit a specific mold. We call it the perfect victim trope. And often we confuse victims' self-defense as a form of aggression. And this is really common in cases like this, where perpetrators will claim that they are the true victims. They do something that psychologists call DARVO. DARVO is an acronym that stands for deny, attack and reverse victim and offender. And we're seeing it on display really clearly in this case, where Johnny Depp is denying, not that he was violent. He actually is still admitting that there was violence coming from him in this relationship. But he's denying the Amber Heard's story of it is trustworthy and instead saying that she drove him to violence.

RASCOE: We should note that Heard did not name Depp in The Washington Post op-ed, but Depp says his reputation was hurt nonetheless. What sort of impact could this trial have on victims of intimate partner violence and their willingness to come forward?

BEDERA: This is my biggest concern about this case, and I think it's something that's really gotten lost in the sensationalism around the trial. Right now, his team is alleging that if a woman comes forward and identifies as a survivor in public, that that could count as defamation.

RASCOE: Do you think that this risk would be the case even for people who are not high profile?

BEDERA: Absolutely. It's already happening. And so according to a Know Your IX report from 2021, they found that of the survivors that report to their universities, 23% are threatened with defamation lawsuits by their perpetrators, and 10% face some kind of a retaliatory complaint on campus.

RASCOE: I mean, if you look at Johnny Depp's reputation in Hollywood, like, it has taken a hit. Producer Jerry Bruckheimer just said he doesn't have any plans to bring Depp back to the "Pirates" franchise. So, like, it seems like, while online he's getting a lot of sympathy, in Hollywood, he is facing, at least for now, some repercussions. Why do you think there's that disconnect?

BEDERA: One question I have is, right now, in our sort of post-#MeToo moment, we're trying to decide what the consequences should be for intimate partner violence. And the reality is that Johnny Depp is facing a lot of consequences for committing acts of violence, not just to Amber Heard but also for volatile behavior on set. And people who work alongside him have a bit clearer of a picture than somebody who's watching it on TikTok and doesn't know any of the people involved in this case. Both Johnny Depp and Amber Heard admit that there was violence in this relationship. The question is whether or not there should be consequences for that violence. And that's the fight we're having in public right now.

RASCOE: That's Nicole Bedera, a sociologist who specializes in sexual violence. Thank you so much for being with us.

BEDERA: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.