May 17, 2022 - Politics & Policy

America more interested in Depp-Heard trial than abortion

Average number of social media interactions per published article, by select topic
Data: NewsWhip; Chart: Simran Parwani/Axios

The defamation trial between actors and former spouses Johnny Depp and Amber Heard has quickly amassed more online attention than some of the country's biggest and most pressing news stories, including the leaked Supreme Court decision and Russia's war in Ukraine.

Why it matters: While political America hangs on an impending Supreme Court verdict on abortion, many more eyeballs are focused on developments in the Depp-Heard trial.

Driving the news: News articles about the trial, which began April 12, have generated more total social media interactions (likes, comments, shares) than coverage about abortion and the Supreme Court or inflation, according to exclusive data from NewsWhip.

  • On a per-article basis, the trial has dwarfed all other major topics in the news (see chart above).
  • There have been double the Google searches for Amber Heard than for Elon Musk over the last month, according to Google Trends data. There have been nearly 4x more searches for her name than for abortion or the Supreme Court.

Backdrop: The trial is based on a defamation lawsuit Depp filed against Heard after she wrote a Washington Post op-ed about domestic abuse that Depp says irreparably hurt his career. Heard has also filed a countersuit.

Zoom in: Entertainment outlets are treating the event like their Super Bowl.

  • "Hands down it's a record setter for us," said Rachel Stockman, president of Law&Crime network. Average daily viewership on the Law&Crime app is 50x higher than before the trial. There are around one million viewers per hour of the trial on Law&Crime's YouTube channel alone.
  • A simple Google search for "What time does the Amber and Johnny trial start" elicits dozens of results from premium outlets about how and when to watch the trial, a traffic engagement trick that news outlets typically use for major events, like the Super Bowl.

Some of the world's biggest entertainment news sites are seeing massive traffic increases as a result of the trial, according to data from SimilarWeb.

  • The websites for People, Us and the New York Post all saw traffic increases year-over-year for the month of April by 9%, 16% and 22%, respectively.

Be smart: The trial has turned viral on social media, thanks to courtroom cameras capturing every moment for the public view that are then quickly turned into viral memes and clips online.

  • Dozens of memes have gained huge traction online, like a viral meme of Amber Heard's crying face that has plastered TikTok, Snapchat and other social outlets, and clips of Johnny Depp passing along doodles to his lawyer in court.

The big picture: Courtroom dramas, especially those featuring celebrities, have long been a staple of the American media appetite, but this one stands out as the first major trial to go viral in the TikTok era.

  • "Consumption has changed for trials like this," Stockman said, referring to how different the numbers were even a year ago during Law&Crime network's coverage of the Derek Chauvin trial last June.
  • "We’re seeing 10-15x the number of viewers for this trial than we normally do across platforms, but most specifically in YouTube. ... We’re seeing bigger and bigger audiences on Twitch."

Between the lines: Many of the most viral clips mock Heard, putting a pro-Depp spin on the media craze.

  • The hashtag #justiceforjohnnydepp has over 10 billion views, per Wired, while the hashtag #justiceforamberheard has 39 million.

Yes, but: While much of the most viral content is meant to be funny, survivors of domestic abuse and assault aren't laughing.

  • Some say the exhaustive volume of memes, clips and jokes shared online about the trial have exacerbated their trauma.
  • TikTok says it has removed videos that violate its policies by disparaging victims of violent tragedies.

The bottom line: Social media is its own court of public opinion, even if the evidence doesn't match the memes.

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