Amber Heard and her legal team recently filed an opening brief seeking to overturn the defamation verdict that Heard’s ex-husband, Johnny Depp, won this summer in his lawsuit challenging Heard’s written characterization of their relationship in a piece for the Washington Post. And as Heard’s appeal gets under way, a group of experts signed an open letter objecting to her unprecedented vilification in the press and on social media. The letter also draws attention to how the case spawned intensive victim-blaming misogyny—and the spread of unfounded defamation suits modeled on Depp’s case, that seek to silence and harm women seeking legal protection from abuse.
In short order, however, this statement of support for Heard fell victim to the same malevolent forces that undermined Heard’s original arguments at trial. Within 24 hours of the letter’s publication, Depp fans launched an attack on its host Instagram account, @letterforamber. Although the account contained no prohibited content, Meta (the new name for Mark Zuckerburg’s Facebook empire, which also owns and operates Instagram) promptly removed it. Once more, an organized trolling campaign has gamed the leading platforms of social media to silence survivors and embolden those who abuse them. On Twitter, meanwhile, Elon Musk’s new regime of amnesty for extremist trolls all but guarantees hat there will be a fresh torrent of abuse plaguing Heard’s appeal on that platform.
This grim prospect prompts some discomfiting questions for both the social mediaverse and the place of female influencers within it. Chief among them is this: how did we plummet so rapidly from a world of #BelieveAllWomen to #AmberHeardIsALiar, from #MeToo to Meta muzzling? The roots of this shutdown, as well as last spring’s vicious, unrelenting social media attack on Amber Heard, can be traced back to the 2014 Gamergate scandal. Gamergate was originally sparked by an ex-boyfriend’s furious breakup post, which maligned female game designer Zoe Quinn; in short order, it spun out of control in a display of hateful and violent misogyny. Aggrieved male gamers—many with ties to alt-right and white supremacist online communities—went into full-on attack mode, in solidarity with Quinn’s rejected lover. They circulated violent threats against her and her family, doxed her personal information, and created a chatroom dedicated to explicit fantasies of Quinn’s execution. And it didn’t stop there. Male gamers banded together to berate and threaten a wide swath of women in and around the gaming world, spreading lies and encouraging others to physically harm them in real life. The world never recovered—indeed, many of Gamergate’s misogynist, racist and violent obsessions coalesced a few years later around the alt-right and the presidency of Donald Trump.
Meanwhile, for Gen Z teens, who were just coming of age, Gamergate shaped the development of their politics and opinions. The unmistakable lesson of the episode was that the self-reinforcing channels of organized online harassment made it so that anyone could hide behind a screen and share vicious fables as facts. In the process, casual misogyny and the threat of violent assault against women who speak out were further normalized online. Women-hating white men could feel both comfortable, and indeed righteously justified, in launching campaigns of terror from the safety of their laptops.
We never seemed to get past the events of Gamergate; eight years later, many online communities remain emotionally toxic and even physically dangerous places for women. But the Heard-Depp trial, and now the appeal process, has pulled back the curtain to reveal a shocking new development: women themselves are now often at the forefront of the latest mode of misogynist harassment, leading the charge in organized predation against their sisters. With their commentary live-streamed on Twitch and uploaded to YouTube, Gen Z female social media influencers exploited their male audience’s all too visceral hatred of Amber Heard for levying credible accusations of abuse against a fellow white man.
It’s hard to say whether these women internalized this repulsion, or cynically monetized it. But it’s clear that they were among the cruelest and loudest of Heard’s attackers. In any event, the vicious and demeaning attention economy of the social mediasphere has largely rendered the question of intent irrelevant; these aspiring influencers have learned only to care about riveting eyeballs to lurid, provocative, and extreme content, with complete disregard for truth or context. The impossible-to-miss irony here is that, in conjuring an online mob to defend Johnny Depp’s claims of defamation, the women on the vanguard of Depp’s stan accounts sanctioned a whole new wave of defamation aimed at every facet of Amber Heard’s being, from her appearance and her emotional composure to her character and her alleged financial motivations.
A case in point: During the Depp defamation trial, a woman identifying online as the popular “CodeMiko,” smirked as Ms. Heard sobbed on the stand; rolled her eyes and shadow boxed as Heard testified about Depp punching her and violating her with a bottle; and incessantly laughed at Heard–or, as she referred to her, “Amber Turd.” No woman-to-woman empathy was evident; it’s performative self-hatred, not feminist solidarity, that sells online. And CodeMiko’s approach did indeed sell: during the six weeks of her constant trial commentary, she gained 26,500 followers on Twitch alone. During the preceding six weeks, she gained fewer than 17,000. When did this become a world where women gleefully attack and destroy other women? How has misogyny become hip not only among self-styled incels and white supremacist men, but trendsetting young women?
The answer lies, at least in part, in the fact that the technologies of social media are skewed to reward extremist and misogynist thought and speech. There’s a reason, after all, that single shooter games were the first significant breeding ground for this ideology: they are founded on an ethos of violent self-assertion as both a universal solution and an end in itself; they leave no space for introspection or self-interrogation; and they translate into a social vision where might always makes right. Our society’s resources are marshaled on a vast scale to shore up the fallacy of male impunity, whereas feminism has no multibillion-dollar software monopolies promoting its worldview. And this brings us, in many ways, back to square one—within minutes of the announcement of the Heard verdict, the internet was flooded with memes and gifs lifted from Depp’s Pirates of the Caribbean film franchise. There could be no starker reminder, in other words, that the same forces that made violent male-centered entertainment the watchword of the gaming industry also created Johnny Depp’s career—and one grim lesson of this ugly episode is that women are no longer offering much direct resistance to the global misogyny- entertainment complex.
This troubling trend is poised to gain renewed traction as Twitter continues to woo reactionary users—and strip away the site’s prior standards of content moderation. This week, Twitter’s new owner Elon Musk extended amnesty to abusive trolls previously banished from the platform, many of whom routinely spewed hate speech and misogynist threats at women. Musk has unabashedly attempted to lure back Donald Trump, once at the forefront of the Twitter war on women, by posting a vulgar meme with Trump as Jesus, on the brink of giving in to the lure of Twitter, represented as a naked woman. The majority of white women, of course, voted for Trump in both his 2016 and 2020 election campaigns, once again highlighting the trend of women tolerating—or even embracing—misogyny in a political culture structured to continue rewarding it. As Heard launches her an appeal, one verdict is already clear: Musk’s new regime of amnesty for purveyors of vicious hate speech means that the forces that produced the original attacks on Amber Heard for speaking the truth about her trauma will be more emboldened than ever.