Elyse, a 20-year-old from Chicago and a dedicated Johnny Depp fan, is convinced that the bruises on Amber Heard’s face are fake. Over Twitter DMs, Elyse tells me that she holds a lifelong fascination with special-effects makeup, blessing her with unique investigatory insight into the reddish swelling that appeared under Heard’s right eye in photos that circulated through the press in 2016. That same year, Heard claimed that her injuries were the result of Depp flinging an iPhone at her in one of his many violent outbursts. Elyse is less convinced. In fact, like so many other freshly radicalized Johnny Depp supporters, she’s certain that there’s a conspiracy afoot.
“I could tell you right there that it was makeup because of the shaping and coloring,” she says. “Not to mention I’m chronically ill and I have a ton of bruises from everything, and not one ever looked like that. Now, I’m a feminist, and I really didn’t say anything on the matter until I gathered all the details since I give the victim the benefit of the doubt, but once I gathered information, I just knew there was something really fishy going on.”
The Johnny Depp vs. Amber Heard saga is protracted, labyrinthine, and almost impossible to recount succinctly, but I’ll try to do my best to catch you up. They met on the set of 2011’s The Rum Diary, started dating in 2012, and married in 2015; Heard filed for divorce 15 months later, seeking a restraining order against Depp due to what she alleged was a bevy of harrowing verbal and physical abuse. Two years after finalizing the split, Heard wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post about her recovery from spousal trauma, a piece that never named Depp directly. Still, the actor—who was already mired in mounting financial troubles—sued his ex-wife for $50 million on the grounds of defamation, effectively claiming that Heard’s domestic violence denunciations were fabricated. In fact, Depp went as far as to assert that he was the true victim, and that Heard was frequently aggressive and cruel toward him throughout their romance.
“Ms. Heard is not a victim of domestic abuse, she is a perpetrator,” reads Depp’s complaint, per Vulture, adding that her claims were part of an “elaborate hoax to generate positive publicity for Ms. Heard and advance her career.”
Everyone can now witness the ugly fruits of this fracas live on TV, as the grim courtroom proceedings of Depp v. Heard trickle into the public square. Legal experts are skeptical that Depp will win the case, and there’s already precedent for him losing this particular fight against Heard: His 2020 complaint against the Sun failed after he served papers to the tabloid for referring to him as a “wife beater.” Depp’s contentions of his victimhood also ring hollow; the aforementioned Vulture story contains some outstandingly horrific texts that Depp sent about Heard, which I won’t republish here, that seem to be right in line with Heard’s accusations of abuse.
That said, evidence presented in the trial has backed up some of Depp’s defenses against Heard’s charges. Last week, the jury listened to an audio recording in which Heard admitted to “hitting” Depp, though the specifics of the context remain unclear. (At one point, Heard can be heard saying, “I can’t promise you I won’t get physical again. God, I fucking sometimes get so mad I lose it.”) The deeper you dig into this story, the more it reveals an absurdly toxic marriage between two people who are viciously unloading their dirty laundry in broad daylight for the leery, cynical celebrity press. But I don’t think anyone could’ve expected the groundswell of digital solidarity around Depp’s dubious guiltlessness, particularly among young people.
Search for “#JusticeForJohnnyDepp” on Twitter, and you’ll see what I mean. Millions of people have come to the same conclusion: Heard is a sociopathic schemer on the level of Amy Dunne, and Depp was unwittingly caught in her web. (“Amber Turd has a history of abuse,” reads one tweet. “Johnny Depp doesn’t need Hollywood. He never did. They need him,” adds another.) The TikTok hashtag #JohnnyDeppIsInnocent has more than 1.4 billion views, as users pore over the cryptographic subtext of Heard’s testimonies like they’re the lost frames of the Zapruder film. In one massively viral clip, a Starbucks drive-thru has two tip jars sitting on the counter: one labeled “Heard,” the other labeled “Depp.” “Go Johnny!” cheers the woman filming, as she crams a dollar bill into the “Depp” jar. Any post even mildly suspicious of Depp’s innocence is immediately brigaded by countless, froth-mouthed teens, so much so that I expect that this article will make me a main character in some of the more unpleasant corners of the internet.
Nobody knows what to make of this trend. After witnessing the endemic rot at the heart of Hollywood during the #MeToo era, it’s bizarre to watch so many people implicitly take the side of an actor who’s been both credibly accused of abuse and—let’s be honest—isn’t anywhere close to the peak of his fame anymore. That is one of the dark mysteries of fandom. If the BTS A.R.M.Y. can sell out a tour in a nanosecond, then I suppose Depp stans can make a supervillain out of Amber Heard.
“I have made lots of friends in this community,” says another member of the #JusticeForJohnnyDepp brigade, who asks to remain anonymous. “For the most part everyone has been very supportive and loving of one another. Overall, everyone here is very kind.” When asked about how they joined the cause, they tell me that they “wanted to use whatever small platform I have to spread the truth and awareness of how abusers will lie and how men struggle the most when trying to come forward about being abused. It’s a much bigger issue than people realize, and I’m glad I can somewhat say something about it.”
Campaigns of this nature usually attract the most unhinged portions of the American right, in particular: QAnon zealots and dedicated Mike Cernovich fans, who probably still think Seth Rich was assassinated by the Clintons. The #DeppJustice contingency isn’t overtly political, but I was surprised to see how many of the people I came across for this story advertised other progressive causes in their Twitter bios. In this universe, it is perfectly normal to have #FreePalestine and #FreeJohnny enshrined on your social media side by side. The sources I spoke to all described their passion for the Depp/Heard scandal with the same language typically reserved for social justice operations; I did not get the sense that they arrived at their conclusions by the forces of 8chan. No, theirs are the same goodhearted instincts that drive so many young people to online advocacy, twisted in some questionable directions.
“Many people in this community are either victims themselves or have known people who are victims” of domestic abuse, continues the activist I spoke to. “Johnny speaking out and saying firmly that he is a victim and this is what it’s like to go through this is giving us all a voice. … For me it’s incredibly inspiring to see him stand up against all the hate and say, ‘No this is the truth.’ It’s given me courage to speak about my story too.”
They sum up the cause this way: “At the end of the day, we are so passionate about this not because we love Captain Jack Sparrow but because we want to raise awareness for a very real issue that is often brushed under the rug.”
All that said, I’m still suspicious as to whether the #DeppJustice push is entirely grassroots. It is impossible to take any roiling discourse at face value in 2022, so I’m not surprised by the Fox News report that about 11 percent of all Twitter accounts participating in the conversation are bots, with a majority of them taking Amber Heard’s side. There is ample opportunity for scammers to cash in on any demarcation line in the culture war, and those interlopers have almost certainly signal-boosted the drama to its current keening apogee. (To reiterate: Surely it can’t be possible that this many people still care about Johnny Depp.) We should keep in mind during every social media cycle that all the histrionics might not be what it seems.
This won’t matter much to those who have already fully committed themselves to the #DeppJustice cause. They’ve consolidated their consensus, no matter what happens in the courtroom. Elyse tells me that when she was young, she met Depp on a film set near her hometown. She handed him a drawing of Jack Sparrow, and he gave her a hug. That’s all Elyse needed to believe, in her heart of hearts, that she’s on the right side of history. “His kindness that day was something that has genuinely stuck with me since it happened,” she says. It’s a lovely memory, and I hope those taking advantage of her trust have trouble sleeping at night.