Kylie Putnam, 23, is not enjoying her time in Fairfax County. She doesn’t want to be here. She lives in Minneapolis but felt compelled to fly to Northern Virginia when she saw videos on Twitter that showed a crowd outside the Fairfax County Courthouse booing and heckling Amber Heard as she departed after another day in court against ex-husband Johnny Depp. Putnam was taken aback that the actress appeared to have no defenders.
“I think what really got me here is that no one was doing anything. Someone has to do something,” said Putnam, who arrived with a sign that read “I Believe Her” written in purple, the color associated with raising awareness about domestic violence. “Do I particularly want to do this? No. But this isn’t supposed to be fun. … Everything about this is just weird and off-kilter and bizarre and horrible.”
In 2016, Heard, 36, filed for divorce and a temporary restraining order from Depp, alleging the actor had physically abused her. Depp, 58, denied the allegations. Two years later, when Heard wrote a Washington Post op-ed referring to herself as a public figure representing domestic abuse, he sued her for defamation. She countersued him for $100 million for defamation after one of his attorneys called her claims a hoax.
The trial, which started April 12 and is being held in Fairfax County, where The Post’s printing press and online server are based, is live-streamed every day and has consumed wide swaths of the Internet. A flood of updates and memes has been overwhelmingly one-sided, as Depp’s fans dominate Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and TikTok — on the latter, the hashtag #JusticeforJohnnyDepp has been viewed 15.4 billion times, while #JusticeforAmberHeard has just 51.5 million views, some of which are actually pro-Depp.
Outside the courtroom, reaction to testimony has been centered on Depp’s extremely vocal fan base, but since the actress took the stand this month, Heard advocates have noticed a small tonal shift, with an increase in supporters online. However, they also say the Internet has been a “nightmare” for the past several years when they vocalize support for the actress, and it has only gotten worse; Depp fans will often swarm replies and lash out at anyone who criticizes Depp or says they believe Heard, and rush to say that the actor alleges Heard abused him.
Putnam tweets often about Heard, and she has grown relatively numb to being bombarded with messages, she said: “I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I don’t really care.” Some Heard supporters publicly post the vulgar missives they receive. Among several viewed for this story, one of the least explicit tells a Heard fan “Ur a liar. You are scum. You will burn in hell.”
“It has just gone absolutely stratospheric,” said Hannah, a London resident who has been outspoken on Twitter in defense of Heard; like multiple people interviewed for this article, she spoke on the condition that her last name be withheld because of threats. She estimates that she’s blocked more than 10,000 accounts. “You get abusive Twitter DMs telling you to kill yourself. … A lot of these accounts get banned for being abusive, saying slurs and making violent threats. But then they just create new accounts to harass you.”
A representative for Depp did not respond to a request for comment about the online vitriol from the actor’s fans, and Heard’s publicist declined to comment on the record.
Belia Garcia of Mexico City said she never had much engagement with her tweets until she started posting about Heard. Now when she posts, she said, some replies are “legitimate” questions regarding the case, while many more include name-calling, pictures of clowns, the hashtag #JusticeForJohnnyDepp or Depp fans referring to the actress as “#AmberTurd.”
“I’ve had to mute them all,” Garcia said. “They don’t bother me, but at the end of the day, I was just insulted 60 times in three hours.”
Kali, who also did not feel comfortable using her last name, has been following the story since Depp’s libel trial in the United Kingdom, when the actor sued the British tabloid the Sun for calling him a “wife beater.” He lost, which some say fueled Depp fans into social media conspiracies about why the judge ruled against him, and Kali has sensed a similar tone here even before the verdict.
“The level of disinformation just watching the trial going on is one of the scariest things I’ve seen online in a long time,” she said, pointing to people liking tweets and TikTok posts that claimed Heard did a bump of cocaine on the stand when she was blowing her nose into a tissue.
At one point, Kali said, she would have attempted a dialogue with Depp supporters who bombard her mentions with defensive tweets, but those days are gone. “You get conspiracy theories instead of legitimate side discussions,” she said.
“The experience of all of this is like an optical illusion: You and another person are looking at the same thing and seeing something entirely different. Going online during all of this is like stepping into an alternate reality when you start to doubt your own eyes and ears and question your sanity,” said Matt James, who runs a popular Twitter account, Pop Culture Died in 2009. James predicts that this trial will be similar to O.J. Simpson’s and spawn a generation of legal analysts. Only now, it’s Twitter commentators and YouTubers who have become dependent on content from the case.
Heard’s defenders say that the trial being televised on Court TV and live-streamed has made it far easier for people to transform clips into viral memes, which they do every day, mostly to celebrate Depp and mock Heard. Viewers edit snippets to make the actress’s accusations seem unfounded or create jokes out of her audio. ‘N Sync member Lance Bass jumped on a recent TikTok trend that ridiculed Heard testimony about the first time she alleged Depp struck her. (Though Bass was applauded by many, he ultimately deleted the video after backlash.)
The actress’s supporters say they are not shocked by reaction, given the animosity directed at her since she first made the allegations in 2016. But they have been taken aback by the level of mockery directed at someone describing abuse.
Charlotte Proudman, a barrister from the United Kingdom who specializes in male violence against women and girls, said that is one of her main concerns — which is shared by other domestic abuse experts — when she logs on to the YouTube live stream and sees people joking about settling in with a cup of coffee like they’re watching a reality show, or posting things like, “Oh, this is hilarious.”
“They’re vilifying her to the point where victims and survivors watching that are thinking, ‘My God, if they’re behaving like that toward Amber Heard, who does have power and is wealthy and famous, how on earth are they going to treat me as an ordinary woman?’” Proudman said. “There are lots of women looking at this and thinking, ‘Maybe I’m a joke. Maybe nobody will believe me.’”
To James, this is why the trial is more than just celebrity drama. “For every hundred nasty messages and death threats I get for saying anything that’s even construed as slightly negative against Johnny, there’s one person who says, ‘Thank you for speaking up about this, I really appreciate it.’ That really does make it worth it. All it takes is one person, especially since a lot of people are afraid to speak up and say something.”
A common theme among supporters is that they weren’t even “fans” of Heard; they’re just horrified watching global reaction: “To me, this isn’t just about Amber Heard. It could be my sister, it could be my mother, it could be my wife,” said J. Davis of Atlanta. “Who’s going to defend these people if this happens to them?”
But Giorgia, a woman in Italy who also spoke on the condition that her last name not be used because of threats, has helped run the Amber Heard Italia Fans website since 2009. She and her friends loved Heard as an actress — they were thrilled to meet her in Paris around 2013 while she was filming “3 Days to Kill.” They were also drawn to Heard’s support of social causes.
Giorgia was not expecting Heard’s journey to go in this direction. She’s most discouraged by people who she thinks aren’t following the trial but see public opinion overwhelmingly in Depp’s favor and are joining in only to be part of the conversation. The online discourse, she said, is similar to what happened in the U.K. trial “but 10 times worse,” especially the urge for people to turn Heard’s testimony into TikTok comedy. “It’s totally disheartening, and sometimes it makes me lose faith in humanity,” she said.
Then there are those like Putnam, the rare supporter to show up at the courthouse to defend Heard one step further than the screen of her phone or laptop.
“I’m not here because she’s a celebrity,” Putnam said. “I’m here because she’s a person.”