Johnny Depp vs Amber Heard court case is being used to fuel vicious backlash against MeToo movement, amplified by social media – Laura Waddell

A once blank slate for exploration, imagination and creativity has become twisted and corrupted.

Amber Heard is being sued in the US by her former husband, Johnny Depp (Picture: Jim Lo Scalzo/pool/AFP via Getty Images)
Amber Heard is being sued in the US by her former husband, Johnny Depp (Picture: Jim Lo Scalzo/pool/AFP via Getty Images)

The internet once seemed as vast as space. Stretching out ahead was great potential for both good and bad. Public conversation, connection and collaboration became possible on a staggering scale. Ordinary people became able to say “hello, world”.

But despite the scale of the web, a mere handful of social media companies has very successfully persuaded billions of users to funnel much of it through its own filters. Social media is where many people around the world source news, social contact and look in the mirror for a sense of self.

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While Facebook started as a college experiment, when it hit the mainstream it felt relatively innocuous at first, after users got over the hump of not sharing personal information online, advice from an earlier internet era of forums and chat rooms.

It was easy to warm to the thrill of a like on a selfie or a check-in. These sites are, in fact, engineered to make us crave more. Before long, multiple generations of families were habitually archiving their entire lives there.

But on these apps owned by billionaires, our attention, like our data, is sold off. Targeted marketing for anything from jeans to toys to right-wing political campaigns have us boxed in as market segments.

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Apps promoted as a vehicle for human connection are, studies now show, damaging young people – teenage girls in particular – worsening mental health, weakening democracy, and propagating misinformation of all kinds. But society is hooked.

It has been difficult to avoid news of the Amber Heard and Johnny Depp legal battle; for those in the United States, it seemed inescapable.

Some speculated the legal process may have been used as a means to humiliate. It’s not easy to forget Depp’s violent texts about wanting to “drown” and “burn” Heard, and more besides.

But online, where the trial has been heavily meme-ified, stripped of context, turned into content to generate engagement, and followed like the latest superhero storyline, he was winning public sympathy even before the verdict in his favour.

The trial has been used to fuel a misogynist attack on women’s advances in opposing domestic and sexual violence: a vicious backlash post-MeToo. But aside from cynical players and bots manipulating public narrative, the widespread flippancy is just as alarming.

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Online I saw a grotesque photograph of a tip jar in a cafe, asking patrons to put their money behind Team Amber or Team Johnny. Spare change, tossed in to cast a lot. How many of those who voted for Depp have been drip-fed online media that confirms and exacerbates pre-existing bias that women can’t be trusted?

Social media was never just a public square; it was a mistake to let our guard down and come together via the commercial interests of private companies. We desperately need to face up to how power is wielded online, public discourse shaped and warped by those with money to spare and a dedicated interest in promoting retrogressive social views through insidious tactics. We need to stop looking at the world through its lens.

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