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Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth

Report Finds Evidence of Widespread, Anti-Amber Heard Online Harassment Campaign

One anti-Heard user “used a photo of a woman’s deceased child to create a fake account and troll the woman” over the woman's public support for Heard.

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Weeks after the conclusion of Johnny Depp and Amber Heard’s defamation trial over Heard’s allegations that he had abused her, a new report confirms what many of us witnessed or even experienced firsthand: Users who posted anything even vaguely supportive of Heard on social media were subjected to a deluge of online harassment, often from newly created accounts specifically dedicated to vilifying Heard. Per a report from research firm Bot Sentinel released on Monday, analysis of more than 14,000 tweets that included one of four viral hashtags (#AmberHeardIsAnAbuser, #AmberHeardLsAnAbuser, #AmberHeardIsALiar, and #AmberHeardLsALiar) characterizing Heard as deceptive or abusive of Depp revealed that 24.4% of accounts tied to these tweets were created just months ago. One in five of the accounts appeared to be “dedicated to spamming.”

The report also analyzed different methods deployed by aggressive pro-Depp accounts, including doxxing and what the firm called “copypasta,” or repeatedly copying, pasting, and tweeting identical content attacking Heard and her supporters. People who expressed support for Heard, or merely expressed that they believed her allegations, “were attacked relentlessly” with tweets using particularly “vulgar and threatening language,” the report said. Not-so-shockingly, “misogyny, doxxing, and death threats were rampant.”

According to Bot Sentinel, one anti-Heard user “used a photo of a woman’s deceased child to create a fake account and troll the woman,” solely because of her tweets in support of Amber Heard. These trolls “didn’t limit their abuse to women” who supported the actress—they “also targeted their family members.”

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One user, Ella Dawson, told CBS that nearly two months after the verdict of the trial, she’s “still getting people tweeting at me, calling me weird, heinous stuff” over tweets she shared that were supportive of Heard and other domestic violence victims. “It’s been weeks and weeks,” Dawson said, and she remains “bombarded by people every day for weeks on end saying that Amber Heard is a liar and women lie, and I am an abuse apologist who must be lying.”

Eve Barlow, a friend and public supporter of Heard, also told CBS about one tweet that told her she’d “look good” crucified. “Anyone who stands for Amber in front of the firing line, you’re not even low-hanging fruit, you’re an easy target.” These attacks, she added, are “intended to intimidate and isolate the victim.”

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Shauna Thomas, co-founder and executive director of the national feminist organization Ultraviolet, told USA Today in June that she “was served an unbelievable amount of content from so-called survivors and feminists taking Johnny Depp’s side.” “The actual latent sexism in society that exists was being tapped into and weaponized, and it was being permitted and amplified by social media platforms,” Thomas said. As Bot Sentinel would eventually assert in its report, she added, “There was nothing authentic about it. I think once people realized that, they did start weighing in in [Heard’s] defense. But at that point, it was too late.”

Per Ultraviolet’s own research, a third of women under the age of 35 and 70% of LGBTQ adults report being harassed online; 61% of women compared with 48% of men characterize online harassment as a “major problem.” Twitter holds a “C-” on the organization’s report card grading social media platforms on their policies on hate speech, violent threats, disinformation, and discrimination.

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Heard and Depp went to court earlier this year after Depp sued his ex-wife for defamation over a 2018 op-ed in which she discussed being a survivor of domestic violence and advocated for other survivors; she didn’t name Depp, but had previously publicly accused him of abuse amid their 2016 split. Over the course of several weeks in April and May, the defamation trial was televised, and became a highly triggering public spectacle, culminating in a suspect jury finding Heard guilty of defamation, and awarding Depp $15 million in damages.

Despite how Heard presented more evidence that Depp had physically abused and sexually assaulted her than most victims are able to provide—witness accounts, therapy notes, photos of injuries, text messages, threatening audio—scorched-earth tactics and victim-blaming myths deployed by Depp’s legal team immediately took hold on social platforms like TikTok and Twitter, rendering the results of Bot Sentinel’s findings altogether unsurprising.

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The pervading online narrative became that Heard—more than 20 years younger than Depp and with significantly less power and resources—had been the abuser, or the relationship had simply been “mutually abusive.” Use of this term is widely disputed by domestic violence experts and advocates, who say it promotes victim-blaming by wrongly equating victims’ responses to abuse or self-defense as abuse.

Throughout the trial, TikTok videos inexplicably thirsting after the 59-year-old former Pirates of the Caribbean star became rampant. Even makeup brand Milani shared a TikTok appearing to cast doubt on Heard’s claims of using their products to cover injuries she said Depp inflicted on her. Depp’s celebrity friends detailed lengthy anecdotes about how kind he had been to them or their children, universalizing their experience and arguing that he couldn’t possibly be abusive toward someone else. And much of the personal attacks painting Heard as not credible on social media—over her alleged history with mental illness or sexuality—ultimately seemed mirrored in a juror’s public comments about Heard. The overwhelming pro-Depp response to the trial has been widely characterized as reactionary backlash against MeToo, broadly.

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In its report, Bot Sentinel says hundreds of Twitter accounts “violated multiple rules and policies of the platform, including but not limited to violent threats, abuse/harassment, hateful conduct, private information, and platform manipulation and spam.” Yet, Twitter “didn’t do enough to mitigate the platform manipulation and did very little to stop the abuse and targeted harassment,” essentially “[leaving] the women to fend for themselves with little to no support from the platform.”