Social Media Weaponizes Celebrity Defamation Trials, Expert Says

  • Social media’s influence is seen at every stage of celebrity defamation suits, a legal expert said.
  • The Johnny Depp v. Amber Heard case in particular has set the internet ablaze in unprecedented ways.
  • “It’s almost like it doesn’t matter what the facts are,” law professor John Culhane told Insider.

The ongoing Johnny Depp v. Amber Heard trial, which has kept the internet rapt with attention over the last six weeks, has frequently felt like it’s playing out online in the court of public opinion, despite the very real reputational and monetary damages on the line.

It’s a symptom of social media’s increasingly insidious role in the recent spate of celebrity defamation lawsuits, a legal expert told Insider.

“It’s almost like it doesn’t matter what the facts are, especially in a case like this when there’s so much noise in the evidence itself,” John Culhane, professor of law at Widener University Delaware Law School, said.

The lurid effects of Twitter threads, Facebook posts, and TikTok videos on high-profile trials are present long before a lawsuit is ever filed and continue to reverberate in the aftermath of a jury’s final decision. In short, social media encourages the existence of celebrity defamation lawsuits – then throws justice to the court of popular opinion, Culhane said.

Two major celebrity defamation trials in recent weeks have put that theory to the test.

First, Blac Chyna sued Kris Jenner, Kim Kardashian, ​Khloé Kardashian, and Kylie Jenner for $100 million, alleging that they unfairly trash-talked her to E! Executives five years ago following her split with Rob Kardashian, resulting in the cancellation of their “Keeping up with the Kardashians” spin-off series “Rob & Chyna.” In early May, after two weeks of testimony, a Los Angeles jury ultimately rejected all of Blac Chyna’s claims.

Meanwhile, Depp’s $50 million defamation case against ex-wife Heard entered its sixth and final week on Monday. At the center of the case is Heard’s 2018 Washington Post op-ed article, in which she said she was a survivor of domestic and sexual violence. The piece did not name Depp, but Depp has accused Heard of ruining his reputation and career by insinuating he abused her. Heard is countersuing for $100 million.

A common instigating factor

Culhane told Insider that these cases and others have a common instigating factor.

“We do know that there are a lot of these high-profile cases that are bubbling up,” Culhane told Insider. “I attribute some of it to social media — the fact that people, and celebrities in particular, every move they make is amplified, and retweeted, and shared in all kinds of different forms.”

Defamation trials have traditionally been a mechanism for aggrieved people to restore their reputations, according to Culhane, who noted that the celebrities involved in these particular cases are failing to achieve that desired outcome. Still, he said, it makes sense why public figures might turn to defamation suits as a possible solution to their ills.

“People who are in the public eye are very much concerned about their reputation,” Culhane said. “They see defamation suits as a way to recover or rehabilitate that reputation.”


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While both Depp v. Heard and Blac Chyna v. the Kardashian-Jenners featured celebrity witnesses, sordid details, and substantial media coverage, only the former has set the internet ablaze in an unprecedented and oftentimes unseemly way.

YouTube channels once dedicated to covering video game content have been repurposed as Depp v. Heard trial coverage to the tune of millions of new views. Local and national brands are getting involved in the case by posting flippant TikTok comments. And hashtags showing support for both Depp and Heard — though mostly Depp — have flooded Twitter since the trial began.

They’re all examples of how social media has weaponized the case in meaningful ways outside of the courtroom.

“With social media, the greater effect is on people not immediately involved in the actual trials,” Culhane said. “It’s the public perception.”

Technology’s changing nature

Culhane told Insider that he has long believed public court proceedings should be televised and made easily accessible. But the ways in which social media users have co-opted video from the Depp v. Heard case has him rethinking that stance.

“One of the things that has generated such thirst is because it’s being televised,” he said. “If you didn’t have that … there would be much less to chew on.”

TikTok users have mockingly mouthed along to Heard’s emotional testimony in which she describes alleged sexual and physical abuse she says she suffered at Depp’s hands. Meanwhile, the app’s live feed has been bombarded with streams playing the day’s testimony on a loop.

The voyeuristic nature of the case has Culhane positing possible solutions, including allowing either party in a case involving allegations of domestic abuse to request it not be televised.

Social media’s ubiquity has led to changes inside the courtroom, as well.

During the Blac Chyna case, an LA jury watched Snapchat videos of Chyna and Rob Kardashian joking around hours before an alleged violent domestic dispute broke out between the two. Jurors in the Depp v. Heard case have heard dozens of personal text messages between the two actors and their famous friends read out in open court.

“It just means there’s more evidence,” Culhane said.

As the Depp v. Heard case barrels toward its conclusion, Culhane said the online media circus surrounding the trial is unlikely to yield positive results for either party, regardless of the jury’s decision.

“Whatever is true in this case, I feel that both of their reputations are really taking a beating,” he said.

But there are the rare people who can weather the proverbial storm and emerge from these defamation cases unscathed, or even championed, Culhane said.

“These cases are tempting for an attorney,” he told Insider. “A celebrity comes to you, even if you don’t think the case is a likely winner, it may boost your profile.”

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