Courtroom porn and social media have turned innocent bystanders into a mass of mudslingers.

By Monica LewinskyMay 31, 2022

Photos from Getty Images. 

Unless you’re a troglodyte, you’ve been exposed to something about the Depp v. Heard trial in the past few weeks. Like many, I have averted my eyes—with guilty fascination—even as I’ve kept track of the defamation conflagration. As we all do nowadays, we watch or we read or we media-graze about these private turned public spectacles in bits and bytes, fearing that the sheer rancor and vulgarity might leave a kind of virtual stench—or, in my case, worrying that prolonged viewing might be triggering. (Don’t know what I’m talking about? Google: 1998.)

Today, most of us are consuming gossip, news, and entertainment news totally differently than we did in the days of yore, from the first televised trial (of the Nazis’ final solution architect Adolf Eichmann, 1961) to the dawn of Court TV in the 1990s (Google: The People of the State of California v. Orenthal James Simpson). Instead, in lieu of watching coverage in real time (yes, John C. Depp, II v. Amber Laura Heard has been available on Court TV’s website and via livestream on YouTube), we have sampled mediated accounts of the trial on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook; through memes, video clips, and TikTok nuggets. Our consumption, therefore, has tended to be biased, curated, and cursory.

What’s more, we have become so attuned to this narrow, cynical cycle of social media encounters that we consider the trial not tragic or pathetic, but as a pure car wreck: accessible, tawdry, and immediately gratifying. We dispense with critical thinking and substitute the cheap thrill. Such scattershot consumption hasn’t allowed for real comprehension. Instead, we experience only apprehension, knee-jerk outrage, and titillation. It’s like going to the opera and reading a couple of translated supertitles but not understanding Italian. And despite whatever else this is, it is a soap opera.

In this perfunctory, voyeuristic way, I grazed through the testimonies, through cross-examination, through summation, observing not the trial but distorted shadows of the trial as reflected through the lenses of friends and pundits and weirdos. And the queasier I felt about this behavior—even if millions of others were doing the same—the more I came to realize that distortion, not objectivity, has evolved into an acceptable lingua franca.

There is another complicating factor at play. Because the trial has also been available live on our screens, we think, subconsciously, that we have a right to look and watch. To judge. To comment. ​And we end up with this confusing cultural crossover of watching two people (whom we are used to seeing as actors acting on a screen) in a setting—a courtroom—where we would normally expect them to be assuming their characters’ roles.

This blurring of public figures and private lives can do a number on us—as bystanders, as an audience. We end up being torn between our parasocial relationships with celebrities (we identify with them; we pretend that, gee, we actually know them) and our need to see public personalities taken down a notch or two—and taken down publicly—so as to make our wounded selves feel better in comparison. As Aldous Huxley put it in Brave New World, we are hooked on soma, a drug that we think is making us feel better but is actually numbing us. (Huxley, of course, wouldn’t blame us as we go about braving our new world of COVID variants, monkeypox, Ukraine, politics, and mass murders.)

And courtroom porn does just the trick.

It really wasn’t until the other week that I began my grazing. I’d retweeted a thread from writer Ella Dawson (@brosandprose) that had been receiving a lot of attention.

Then I dove in.

I wasn’t surprised that the memes about Amber Heard far outnumbered those about Johnny Depp. I wasn’t surprised that the cruel and vitriolic discourse was predominantly aimed at the woman. And I shouldn’t have been surprised (but I was) that shortly after my search, I began to be served suggested posts on the trial. But they were less about Depp and Heard; more seemed to idolize Camille Vasquez (Depp’s lawyer) for her “performance” cross-examining Heard. (Oh, you thought we wouldn’t have any girl-on-girl action in this trial? That’s on Misogyny’s greatest-hits album.)

This legal spectacle would be sad enough if it just impacted the personal lives of Depp, Heard, and their loved ones. It would be sad enough even if we just considered how it has impacted domestic violence survivors or those who have sought strength in the #MeToo movement. However, it’s the larger implications for our culture that concern me the most: the ways we have stoked the flames of misogyny and, separately, the celebrity circus.

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It’s not just the two individuals and how you feel about them or this situation; it’s the cultural collateral damage. It’s the implicit messaging that burrows into us like the worm bugs from The Matrix, crawling deep into our collective unconscious, our angst, our fiber. Dawson’s thread referenced the trial’s impact on those currently suffering in domestically abusive relationships, and those who have survived them. And suddenly, after my retweet, a Twitter war ensued in my timeline over whether the plaintiff or the defendant was more responsible for triggering domestic violence survivors. (“And the Oscar for best trauma-triggering performance goes to…”)

In the end, the ways we have contemptuously co-opted the trial for our own purposes are a sign of how many of us, the social-media-mongrelized, have continued to devalue our dignity and humanity. (Forgive me if I climb up on my high horse for a paragraph or two. Having been on the receiving end of this kind of cruelty, I can tell you the scars never fade.) I’m certainly not here to tell you not to watch the verdict or not to have an opinion. But what is too much? What is defined as “too far”? As we have watched this story unfold, what does our opinion entitle us to? Does it entitle us to say whom we “believe”? To restate the cherry-picked facts we’ve glommed on to that have led us, as virtual jurors, to “just feel it in our bones”?

Yeah, sure. But does it entitle us to be cruel? I’m not talking about freedom of speech. I’m talking about social media participants recognizing that they are also part of a society of human beings. Does our opinion toward this case entitle us to feel so superior—or inferior—that we can create a meme or a TikTok or a tweet saying something that gets other people to laugh at someone who is already suffering? Do we have a “right” to get dopamine hits—or money—from our number of followers or retweets or clicks?

According to science fiction author Greg Fishbone, founder of the microsite Mythoversal, “for the ancient Greeks, a miasma was a moral taint that hung over a person, family, or city after the commission of a crime. The miasma could cause crop failures, cattle disease, stillbirths, and other plagues until it could be dispelled by sacrifice, purification, or upon the death of the guilty party.” What we have now, arguably, is a “cultural miasma.” We are drenched in the taint of the dirt and aggression of the social media wars. The obsessive chatter around the Depp–Heard trial is just one small example of the ever-expanding, ever-demanding search for schadenfreude and titillation.

No matter whom the jury’s verdict favors—be it defendant Heard or plaintiff Depp—we are guilty.

courtesy Vanity Fair