Wide Angle

The Uncomfortable Reason You Can’t Escape the Depp-Heard Trial on TikTok

Amber Heard sits in profile, touching her chin, against a computer screen background. She is surrounded by wiggling illustrations of a microphone, a heart, a notification symbol, and a mouse pointer.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Shawn Thew/AFP via Getty Images.

TikTok’s “For You” page promises users a personalized social media experience, but some trends are so ubiqutious they can upend the algorithm. And while those videos can be harmless fun—like the ones of people dancing to Lizzo’s “About Damn Time” or the goofy rap earworm “Jiggle Jiggle”—other megaviral moments are more disturbing. The defamation lawsuit between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard, each of whom has accused the other of domestic violence, has led to a deluge of videos featuring snippets of testimony, fan reactions, and even a (since-deleted) clip of Lance Bass acting out Heard’s statements.

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On the latest episode of In Case You Missed It, Madison Malone Kircher and guest host Moises Mendez II discuss how certain cultural trends became impossible to avoid on TikTok—even if you really, really don’t want to see them.

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This transcript has been condensed and edited for clarity.  

Malone Kircher: Why do you think it feels like we can’t escape these videos right now, even if we want to?

Mendez: In this big media landscape that we’re in right now, I think everyone is seeing the power that TikTok has and they’re trying to use it to their advantage. For example, with talk shows, hosts like Jimmy Fallon are doing dance challenges. He did the “Jiggle Jiggle” dance with Shakira. And once they do these things, they push it further into the public consciousness so much so that it starts to get old really quick, sort of like radio hits in a sense.

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Malone Kircher: That makes sense to me. And it seems very likely to me that because these trends have spread so much wider than their original audience, that there is functionally no way to tell TikTok’s algorithm that I don’t want to see them anymore.

Also, frankly, that would be a lie, and TikTok knows it. I’ve spent too many hours, days, weeks, months of my life on this app, teaching it exactly who I am and the sorts of trends I want to see, and they’re not getting me wrong by showing me this trial or 9,000 Lizzo videos. TikTok understands that I want to be looped in on the biggest things going on on TikTok on a given day. When I hit that little, hidden “show me less, I don’t like this” button over on TikTok about a random Johnny Depp–Amber Heard video, TikTok is just like, “sure, Jan.”

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Mendez: They said: “You’re actually lying. Shut up. Here’s more content. Eat your food and shut up.”

Malone Kircher: Truly, though. I watched 1,001 TikToks about Gabby Petito, but—understandably—the algorithm can’t understand why I don’t want to see these trial videos now. The same goes doubly for lighthearted stuff. Fun things like “About Damn Time” and “Jiggle Jiggle,” those things are still very actively trending. They’ve got a long tail and I have trained TikTok that I want to know about those things.

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[Read: Did True Crime Influencers Really Help Solve the Death of Gabby Petito?]

Mendez: Yeah. It’s also interesting that these trends are so prevalent across so many different people’s “For You” pages, because that’s usually not the norm.

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Malone Kircher: We talk about this a lot on the show, actually, how if you talk about your TikTok “For You” page as though it’s the same as everyone else’s, you’re living in a bubble and you’re probably wrong.

Mendez: I like my bubble.

Malone Kircher: I like my bubble too, but I think as people who cover internet culture—especially as a white lady covering internet culture—it’s very dangerous to be like, this is all of TikTok. My worldview. Because it’s a really highly specific and dynamic app with a lot of fricking content.

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I’ve been thinking, actually, that it’s pretty rare, what is happening with the Heard-Depp trial, drowning out everything on the app, because that’s actually not usually what happens.

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Mendez: And that’s a good thing. I mean, it’s what makes TikTok so compelling. I think if everyone’s for “For You” page was the same, we’d be missing out on a lot of really nice and weird stuff, and I really love all the nice and weird stuff.

Malone Kircher: I think maybe that’s what we’ve been missing or craving, frankly. It’s a very wide spectrum here. Obviously “Jiggle Jiggle” and “About Damn Time” have, in various ways, brought me joy. The Johnny Depp–Amber Heard trial has brought me no joy.

Mendez: The complete opposite.

Malone Kircher: Yeah, but none of those things are niche. They’re not weird. The best TikToks are the ones that are so specific, you’re concerned that TikTok has booby-trapped your home, you know?

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Mendez: Literally, I’m searching my house for a bug. What did I do? Who is listening to me?

Malone Kircher: So while we’d like the weird and the bizarre and the singular taste things to come back to our “For You” page, what we’ve learned is TikTok’s all-powerful algorithm is no match for a truly megaviral content juggernaut—or actually, more realistically, it’s probably that it is a match and the algorithm knows precisely what it’s doing. It’s working as designed.

Mendez: And we’re all just along for the ride until something else comes along and takes over our collective consciousness.

Listen to the full episode of ICYMI, Slate’s internet culture podcast, below.

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