lIf you’ve accessed TikTok in the past two weeks, you’ve struggled to escape any comment or clips from the defamation lawsuit that Johnny Depp filed against his ex-wife Amber Heard in a Virginia courtroom.
The Trial, on an op-ed Heard wrote for the Washington After in 2018 in which Depp claims she defamed him has become inevitable on TikTok. There are regular courtroom updates from both established news channels on the app and regular users who cut key moments and add their own opinions. Videos tagged with the hashtag #johnnydepp have 11.3 billion views and the hashtag #justiceforjohnnydepp has 5.6 billion views.
Despite there being no shortage of news around the world, the Depp-Heard trial seems to dominate TikTok – with most videos supporting Depp and denigrating Heard. It all begs the question: why?
TikTok representatives declined to speak for this story. But many of those following the app have theories as to why videos supporting Depp have taken over TikTok.
“TikTok is always a great enhancer for cultural moments,” said Abbie Richards, a research fellow with the Accelerationist Research Consortium and a misinformation and misinformation researcher who specializes in how content travels on TikTok. “If you engage in one video on the topic, the algorithm will learn that you like it and will continue to give you similar or even related videos.”
Read more: What you need to know about Johnny Depp and Amber Heard’s defamation lawsuit
Like traditional media, TikTok has been inundated with footage and coverage of the lawsuit. Several news networks have hosted live streams in the app that report on what goes on in the courtroom every day, raising awareness and involvement in the trial. That sets off a gold rush for other creators to join in a conversation that seems to dominate the app, creating a flywheel of more content. One of the main things on TikTok is the virality of its memes: users see a certain type of video or piece of audio and produce something similar to try to capitalize on its popularity. In this case, the trial itself has become a meme. “Whether you’re part of Depp’s fanbase or not, the rush to join the conversation about Depp is strongly motivated by algorithmic amplification and the golden ticket to the For You page,” said Tom Divon, a visual communications researcher at Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
There’s also the fact that Depp is much loved by his digital fan base, not least because of his role in the Harry Potter and pirates of the caribbean franchises. As the hashtag #justiceforjohnnydepp approaches 6 billion views, #justiceforamberheard stumbles on to 21 million. “What we see playing out in the anger against Amber Heard has a number of layers,” said Georgie Carroll, an Australian academic who studies the relationship between online creators and their audiences. “This isn’t something that’s representative of all fans or fandom, but we always see a degree of dislike and distrust of popular male celebrities’ partners. Fans often think that a female partner isn’t “good enough” for their favorite celebrity, or hold a distant hope that they should be.”
In addition to the viral momentum of a live news event that many feel they have an interest in, featuring highly recognizable celebrities with devoted fanbases, the Depp-Heard trial also uses a third accelerator to ensure its success: cybersleuthing TikTok . While the idea of amateur sleuths using the internet to collaborate on research projects has been around for years, the movement has been given a boost by the snackable, immersive nature of TikTok videos. Perhaps most famously, TikTok users claim credit for helping discover the body of van-life influencer Gabby Petito after she disappeared in August 2021. TikTok sleuths dug into available open-source evidence and claimed Petito’s fiancé Brian Laundrie was responsible for her murder.
A similar impulse propelled TikTok’s crowdsourced investigation into West End Caleb, a New York furniture designer who has allegedly ghosted several women — and appears to be partly responsible for perpetuating content around the Depp-Heard trial. “West Elm Caleb’s phenomenon wasn’t just a few girls posting about their experiences with him. It was snowballing those posts, then posts about them, then memes, then meta-memes about the memes, then articles and discourse outside the app,” Richards says. “The thing turns into a huge cultural moment.”
This also happens around the current process. Users exchange pet theories that revolve around someone resembling Heard’s lawyer, Elaine Bredhehoft, appearing in the crowd at a red carpet event for Depp’s 2013 film The Lonely Ranger† A video outlining the theory, which has been viewed nearly 15 million times on TikTok, has been shared 42,000 times. It is just one of many summaries of the process.
The magnitude of the content is understandable, Carroll says, as is the passion felt by the fan bases of both individuals. “When a celebrity is involved in a controversy – whether something has been claimed or proven – our modern social media sphere means there’s an immediate tremendous pressure to part with any affection you’ve ever had for them,” she says. . But as we see, many choose instead to redouble their love for Depp, confident that the course of the trial will prove the innocence of their favorite actor. With several weeks to go before it ends, TikTok will likely continue to reverberate with pro-Depp, anti-Heard content.
More must-read stories from TIME