The TikTok accounts that influenced the Depp-Heard lawsuit
Photo-Illustration: Susanna Hayward
The last era of elite mainstream media – that is, America’s high-paying, rules-bound news media focused on academic readers – was marked by a continuous journalistic reassessment of how women are covered. It started with the Harvey Weinstein investigations five years ago. More recently, readers have followed writers (and their editors) exploring how journalism has historically treated women as sex objects and punchlines. Most notably: the appropriate obsession with freeing Britney Spears, who has become the subject of esteemed investigative projects and dismal personal essays; Justin Timberlake finally embarrassed to apologize to Spears and Janet Jackson; Paris Hilton took to Washington Job and Congress to crusade against the cruel “troubled teen” industry and was treated with respect for the first time; the writers explained to readers that future Esq. Kim Kardashian was no longer to blame for the horrible things her ex-husband might say. And as mainstream media have begun to heed their recent misogynistic history, their business model has already shifted in ways that reward this kind of interrogation. New York Publications Time to Atlantic to this magazine have doubled their service to paying subscribers. Our paywalls have become stricter; our quest for more thirsty elite readers.
At the same time, a new class of media has exploded: creators and influencers working across all avenues, from lifestyle fluff to political opinion to citizen court reporters. Critical and wary of the stifling mainstream media, these social media accounts comment on and sometimes even start the biggest conversations of the moment. They post often and quickly – sometimes hundreds of times a day – and don’t have to pretend they’re objective. In fact, they showed that news consumers are delighted when they choose sides. The most successful of them are sophisticated visual storytellers who know how to captivate an audience – and, as we saw this spring, they don’t shy away from whipping a famous woman.
If you’ve been too busy at the opera this spring, you might have missed the fact that actor Johnny Depp sued his ex-wife for defamation for simply saying she was known as a face of abuse ; she countersued because one of her lawyers called it a hoax. After weeks of wild testimony, a jury declared that they had both won, which was utterly impossible, although his prize was $10 million and his was just $2 million.
Although Depp was essentially declared a court-approved wife beater in another trial in England, that trial sparked a public celebration of Johnny Depp’s enthusiasm rivaling the goodwill received by the unproblematic pantheon of Tom Hanks, The Rock, Chris Evans and Keanu. Reaves. Heard has become a singular object of scorn, as an audience of Gen Z celebrity gossip buffs and Gen X Instagrammers – won over primarily because of their youthful imprint by What eats Gilbert Raisin that Depp would win her case – united to decide she was the devil.
Mainstream media only noticed the frenzy once it was in full swing. In essays and opinion pieces, we’ve chastised these influential sleuths (Click Tracys?), who were apparently hearing different testimony from ours. Their scope and vitriol were, to many of us, shocking. Any Depp-stanning TikToker camped outside the courthouse can reach many more readers than the newspaper employee dutifully covering the trial. We were busy believing the women, while the women online clamored for Heard’s head — and they, more than us, shaped the general public’s understanding of the trial.
There is, so far, only one proven fact in digital publishing: the more you publish, the more success you have. Almost every influential hit, from Trump to New York Time at DeuxMoi, is based on frequency and consistency. The most effective influencers-turned-commentators, like @houseinhabit’s Jessica Reed Kraus, know this. Kraus is a mom from San Clemente, Calif., who got her start in content mining as a lifestyle blogger (imagine lots of wavy-haired wires, surfboards, swimming pools, and exposed ceiling beams). Over the past year or so, she’s transformed into a lawsuit-obsessed Instagrammer. His gossip rollercoaster ride through evidence and pop culture has earned him nearly a million Instagram followers and apparently thousands of paying Substack subscribers. “In an age of growing censorship and distrust of paid media designed to divide and distract us, I hoped this space would offer anyone looking for nothing else, refreshing respite,” she told her audience. “Expect the return of wacky humor, biting sarcasm and people talking like real people again. Unguarded and uncut.
Kraus collects her own commentary, court evidence, a trial video, and professional photos that she certainly cannot claim copyright to. (“Photoshoot in the Bahamas the day after claiming she was ‘beaten to within an inch of her life,'” Kraus posted of a nude image of Heard.) She also has a clever natural sense to encourage a surprising side : Just as she was strongly, ominously sympathetic to Ghislaine Maxwell, she was one of the main instigators of the anti-Heard story.
Her posture is part truth-telling journalist and part YouTube drama blogger. Either way, being an underdog with powerful enemies is good for the brand. So it was a bit of luck when her main account on Instagram was, according to her, suspended. “I was struggling in the trenches of an escalating online war that I was warned about at the very beginning. Everything is coming to a head with the end of the trial approaching, my account (before suspension) hanging on the edge of the 1M mark, and my viewing numbers are skyrocketing in anticipation of a verdict expected to arrive on Thursday or Friday,” she wrote on May 20. “It all seems very calculated. feeling like you’re sitting here with your hands tied, paying a heavy price for the truth.
She hinted at a smear campaign, a blockbuster work that was to appear in the New York Job, and more: “I have rooted myself in the center of all this sensational circus.” Was she yet? Her narrative was seemingly restored – then, when it came to the verdict, she delivered a stroke of narrative genius. She said she was in London and posted a video of Depp singing at the Royal Albert Hall (from good seats, no less). This aura of exclusivity and closeness blew his fans away.
Kraus is just one of hundreds who racked up a huge following and built up a following during the trial. Devotedly.yours has posted hundreds of times, attracting millions of views. A self-proclaimed Egyptian American single mother of two in Virginia, “forever a Swiftie & Potterhead”, she spoke out against domestic violence in the past. But don’t assume that means she would side with Heard. On June 1, she joined other Depp supporters outside the Fairfax Courthouse for the verdict. “Johnny, Johnny! everyone chanted.
“I’ve followed this from day one, and I believe he and the media have been so against him,” she said, in a fascinating expression, because as far as I know, she’s the media.
19-year-old Cami Twomey made a name for himself as Gen-Z Peter Jennings. She went from Met Gala looks and an article titled “Megan Fox and MGK Drink Eachothers Blood” to 118 almost consecutive videos on Depp. Her newscaster-style updates on the case — in which she speaks directly to the camera over still photos of Depp and Heard — have garnered 47 million likes on TikTok. She too applauded the verdict as #justiceforjohnnydepp.
All of their personalities and stories add value to their coverage. Twomey, if you dig a few hundred videos, reveals how she was permanently and invisibly disabled by COVID. This puts his constant affectation in a new context. “People have no idea what’s going on behind the scenes,” she reminds us. “Every day is a fight.”
Now that the lawsuit is over, these creators and many more find themselves with huge audiences. What will they do with this huge market share of Americans – who would probably appreciate Britney Spears’ original cruel cover of enlightened self-flagellation any day? Some of them will find another ordeal to cover; Will musician FKA twigs’ domestic violence lawsuit against actor Shia LaBeouf get as much attention? There will be growing pains. Most of these influencers, who speak confidently about defamation, probably have no idea how often newspapers and magazines are sued. Copyright strikes, targeted mass reporting campaigns and libel suits will hamper top performers; they will face friction not just from lawsuits, but also from their publishing platforms, sponsors, and peers. Time will probably compel this medium to build subscribers as well, if it can. If innovators stay in the game, they’ll find out just how crummy the media industry can be.
Want more stories like this? Subscribe now to support our journalism and gain unlimited access to our coverage. If you prefer to read in print, you can also find this article in the June 6, 2022 issue of New York Magazine.