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Monday, April 8, 2024

TikTok’s New, Terrible Trend

The Monitor is a weekly column devoted to everything happening in the WIRED world of culture, from movies to memes, TV to Twitter.

The cat is wearing a blond wig. From the bottom corner of the frame, a tiny plastic hand, attached to an index finger, comes and swipes the orange feline’s whiskered snout. The video then cuts to the same cat wearing a black wig and bandana; the accompanying voiceover says, “I was walking out of the bedroom. He slapped me across the face, and I said, ‘Johnny, you hit me. You just hit me.’” I’d been avoiding this video for days, ever since reading about it in Rolling Stone. It reportedly got millions of views on TikTok but then went missing. Nevertheless, there it was, in my carousel of suggested reels on Instagram, where the algorithm has figured out I love cat videos—but not that I dislike social media mockery of domestic abuse allegations.

Ever since the defamation trial between Johnny Depp and ex-wife Amber Heard began in April, a certain kind of stan culture has formed around it. Depp is suing Heard for $50 million, claiming that an op-ed she wrote for The Washington Post about being a “public figure representing domestic abuse” has been damaging to his reputation and career. (The piece doesn’t mention the actor by name.) Depp has denied the allegations, and the jury in their trial is also considering a countersuit from Heard. As the case grinds toward its conclusion, scenes from the courtroom have gone viral on social media, particularly on TikTok, where users reenact or otherwise ridicule the testimony given. The audio in that cat clip is from Heard’s testimony. Another video, which shows Heard on the stand, is overlaid with a video from Kim Kardashian on Saturday Night Live saying “so cringe.” It currently has more than 5 million likes.

Fandom has often intersected with celebrity trials, going back to the throngs of supporters who showed up in Santa Barbara, California, to support Michael Jackson in 2005. In some instances the attention has put the public eye back on overlooked stories, like Britney Spears’ conservatorship, which took a turn thanks to the #FreeBritney movement. But there’s something particularly unsettling about the brand of attention emerging from the Depp/Heard trial. Supporting a celebrity embroiled in a legal case is one thing, making memes mocking someone who’s alleging they were hit by their partner is another.

Internet commentary thrives on unsavory topics, and TikTok is no exception. (And, for what it's worth, TikTok has reportedly removed some of the videos using audio of Heard’s testimony.) People mock politics and politicians on all sides of issues. But using this case in particular as fodder for reenactment and reaction videos to get clicks seems especially egregious, perhaps because it seems so targeted at one person, one situation, rather than a larger topic and the dozens of voices weighing in. Although most of the ridicule seems directed at Heard (an unnerving trend within the trend), both she and Depp are claiming damages to themselves and their lives in this case, so would it be too much to ask, as The Guardian did this week, to “treat a somber issue somberly”?

A lot of the memeification around the trial has stemmed from Depp’s supporters wanting the actor to get a fair shake, and therefore trying to discredit Heard. But as the Cut wrote, “no matter how damning the evidence may look in court, social media tells a different story,” with Instagram memes and YouTube comments intent on framing Depp as a victim and Heard as an actor putting on a show. The case will ultimately be decided by a jury, but in the meantime the #justiceforjohnnydepp hashtag on TikTok has more than 10 billion views; the #justiceforamberheard hashtag has a more modest 39 million. After years of #MeToo, here “is a woman recounting, in agonizing detail, how an extremely famous man allegedly abused her,” The Cut’s Claire Lampen pointed out. “Why, in 2022, do so many people seem to hate her for it?”

Part of the answer may lie in the fact that while the internet doesn’t forget, it does have a rose-tinted memory. When you’re famous, the people who love you can opt to remember your part in Pirates of the Caribbean and ignore everything else. It can also recall that you were once married to someone they admire and forget that you’re a person. There seems to be deep-rooted misogyny—and deep-rooted mistrust of women who make claims of abuse generally—in social media’s treatment of Heard. But in addition to that, there’s another message: People who come forward will not be believed and will also potentially be mocked. Life online can make celebrities appear only in the forms we want to see them. It renders them unreal. It can turn Depp into a swashbuckler and Heard’s tearful testimony into nothing more than a TikTok sound. That’s a trend no one needs.

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