Sophie Doggett, whose TikTok was previously populated by videos on everyday things such as herself or her pets, posted to her TikTok account on April 25 a clip of Heard’s lawyer asking a question of a witness and then immediately objecting to the response. It is one of many moments in the trial that has been seized upon by people like Doggett, as clips of testimony and references to the case have pervaded TikTok in a way that no trial has before. That’s partly because the proceeding, set to resume Monday, is being livestreamed during the age of TikTok, and also because of the high-profile celebrities the case involves.
Doggett, who paired the clip to playful music, said she gained 30,000 followers seemingly overnight from the post which has, to date, been viewed more than 5 million times. Asked about her follower count before the viral post, she says it was 6,668, a number she recites by heart. In the three weeks since the post, she’s collected more than 25,000 additional followers. Her account is now dedicated to Depp-related posts, some of which pertain to the trial, others to past Depp films or interviews. The top three posts pinned to Doggett’s account have more than 14 million collective views.
If there’s any question of where her loyalty lies, it is with Depp, something that’s conveyed through the photo associated with her TikTok account — white text against a black background that reads “Justice for Johnny Depp.”
Emily D. Baker, a former LA deputy district attorney turned online creator, streams live legal commentary of the trial proceedings on her YouTube page, which has more than 330,000 subscribers. Her viewers increasingly request for her to respond to theories or footage they have seen on TikTok, she says.
“When you have cameras streaming in the courtroom, people are going to clock every strange behavior. And they have,” said Baker.
Many are in the comment sections on YouTube channels to cheer Depp or jeer Heard — typically in that order. Others have set up their own video broadcasts to provide ongoing commentary of the trial in real-time or devoted Instagram accounts to posting updates on the case. Perhaps most striking — because of the way in which the platform operates and how users take to it — is TikTok.
Like Doggett, two other TikTok users CNN Business spoke with recounted similar stories of going from hundreds or thousands of followers to tens of thousands of followers in a matter of days due to Depp-related posts.
One TikTok user, who is based in the UK, said she posted a video on April 27 celebrating Depp for freeing his lawyer’s snagged charger cord with a comment, “the little things.” “I wasn’t expecting anyone to reach out, or like it, or share it even,” she said, noting that she’d originally created her account to post about films. But it has since garnered more than 10 million views. She’s continued posting about the trial and she says her account has gone from fewer than 300 followers to more than 50,000.
Maria Pugsley, also based in the UK, similarly told CNN Business that followers to her account grew from fewer than 10,000 to more than 37,000. Previously, she said her use of TikTok included “jumping on the trends, really and having a bit of a laugh — it never really took off to be honest.”
But users have taken to her commentary on the trial, in which she favors Depp and has spoken about male victims of abuse. “In the beginning I went in very unbiased — all of my opinions are based on the courtroom,” she said, adding: “I am always open to having my opinion changed.”
A high-profile trial, dissected on TikTok
One hashtag, #JusticeForJohnnyDepp, has garnered more than 11 billion views globally, while just the actor’s name has more than 19 billion, and #JohnnyDeppisInnocent has garnered more than 3 billion. Users are applying filters to their faces to personify Depp, combining clips of testimonies with past footage from Depp’s film archives. By contrast, #JusticeForAmberHeard has 41 million views. Heard’s name has garnered more than 9 billion views and #AmberTurd has 1.6 billion (a hashtag fueled by trial testimony concerning fecal matter.) Meanwhile, the #AmberHeardIsALiar had drawn more than 2 billion views when CNN Business reviewed it Friday afternoon, but the hashtag no longer appeared viewable in the app as of Friday evening.
“What you’re seeing is fan base versus fan base,” Juda Engelmayer, a public relations professional who has worked with high-profile figures, such as disgraced Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein who was convicted for sex crimes, and is currently working with the fake heiress Anna Sorokin. “It was surprising to me that the social media throngs and supporters are almost entirely backing him.”
According to Daniel Klug, a systems scientist at Carnegie Mellon University’s Institute for Software Research who has researched TikTok’s algorithm, “TikTok creates a sort of mediated reality for the user.”
“Over a time period, you see a lot of short videos … depending on what kind of content you see, let’s say a lot of content about the trial, that creates a certain perception of the reality of the trial for you on TikTok,” he said, noting that posts tends to fall into two categories: those that capture testimonies from Heard, Depp, or others on the stand “describing very personal and intimate and weird details of their relationship,” or content related to Depp or the trial that is “remixed or reinterpreted by other users.”
“This applies as much to [content posted about] Ukraine as clips of the Amber Heard, Johnny Depp trial,” said Hood, noting that “content on TikTok, more so than any other platform, is free of context … We tend to know less about the account that’s posting it, less about when it was posted, less about where the material is from, about the motivations of the person posting it … I’ve got a lot of sympathy for the users because it is genuinely very hard, with the information available to you in the app, to understand the context and to make an assessment of how true or false it is.”
Center for Countering Digital Hate’s report noted that discussions of Depp and Heard’s legal battles on social media “often contain abuse towards Heard, as well as the promotion of conspiracy theories around the rate of women’s false allegations of domestic abuse.”
“I believe I was mass reported over political differences”
There are also questions about whether and how others on the platform may be able to silence certain voices or opinions.
One TikTok user named Ashley, who asked that her last name be withheld for privacy reasons, posted about how she felt some men’s rights activists were using the trial as an excuse to discredit allegations by women of abuse.
“Can you imagine the leeway every narcissistic woman-hating man is going to have now?” she said in the post. Ashley told CNN Business that the post was quickly “dueted” and she received threats in the comments, then her account was banned.
In a message on April 26, Ashley — who is based in Pittsburgh and had 7,000 followers — asked TikTok to restore her account, “I believe I was mass reported over political differences,” she wrote, adding that she had screenshots of threatening messages she had received. Asked about her account by CNN Business last week, TikTok said it would investigate it. Following that, the company restored her account but did not provide any details on why.
Dissection by TikTok: Johnny Depp, Amber Heard trial posts are making accidental influencers out of some, targets out of others