Amber Heard got a lot of flak on social media during her defamation trial with Johnny Depp. Now comes a report that, perhaps unsurprisingly, shows that not all of that negativity was organic.
Bot Sentinel, a research firm that uses data science and artificial intelligence to detect and track bots, trolls and suspect accounts on Twitter and elsewhere, released a report Monday focused on how Heard was treated during the civil trial. It found that the targeting of the "Aquaman" actor was "one of the worst cases of platform manipulation and flagrant abuse from a group of Twitter accounts."
Heard's legal team hired the company in 2020, but Bot Sentinel says it wasn't paid by anyone for the Heard research it did in June 2022 after a verdict was reached in the court case.
A jury decided after a six-week trial that Heard had defamed her ex-husband by saying in a 2018 Washington Post op-ed that she had endured domestic abuse. Depp was awarded $15 million in compensatory and punitive damages, a number that was reduced immediately to $10.35 million to align with statutes in Virginia, where the case was tried. The jury also found that Depp had defamed Heard but awarded her only $2 million in damages.
Bot Sentinel's new report, which zoomed in specifically on Twitter, found that trolls had manipulated conversations and trends "while targeting and abusing women to suppress any positive tweets supporting Amber Heard."
Some 627 Twitter accounts were dedicated primarily to tweeting negatively about Heard and her supporters, the company found. And almost 3,300 accounts were tweeting the hashtags #AmberHeardIsAnAbuser, #AmberHeardLsAnAbuser, #AmberHeardIsALiar and #AmberHeardLsALiar, with the misspellings perhaps intended to get around Twitter filters.
"We immediately observed dozens of newly created accounts spamming negative anti-Amber Heard hashtags," Bot Sentinel said in an overview of its 17-page report. "Many accounts were replying to tweets with hashtags unrelated to the tweet they were responding to. Some accounts encouraged others to get the hashtags trending, and the trolls were successful on multiple occasions."
After looking at more than 14,000 tweets that included the hashtags above, the company said, it determined that 24.4% of the accounts sending those tweets had been created in the past seven months.
One manipulative technique that was employed was "copypasta," or copying and pasting duplicative content to game Twitter's trends and propagate a positive view of Depp and a negative view of Heard, the report said. One such message read, "People turned against Amber Heard, not because Johnny Depp is a powerful man or a famous actor, but because we watched the trial and saw who was telling the truth and who wasn't."
Additionally, the company said it found that women who tweeted in support of Heard were often targeted by trolls who flung "vulgar and threatening language" their way for weeks after the trial ended.
An academic who supported Heard was targeted by an account featuring a photo of the academic's dead child, the report said. Trolls amplified the harassment and eventually doxxed the academic's family members, the report said, noting that the specific example had been included to show the level of harassment that occurred.
Bot Sentinel said it submitted a list of the offending accounts to Twitter before publishing its report. The Times has reached out to Twitter for comment.
"It's our opinion Twitter didn't do enough to mitigate the platform manipulation and did very little to stop the abuse and targeted harassment," Bot Sentinel said in its report.
"Twitter essentially left the women to fend for themselves with little to no support from the platform. The abuse and targeted harassment continued well after the Depp vs. Heard trial ended, and unless Twitter takes action, the abuse and targeted harassment will still continue."
Among the other reports published by Bot Sentinel since October 2021 was one that studied a coordinated online hate campaign targeting Prince Harry and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, and another that revealed more than 96,000 accounts that followed Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in April were created over the space of about two days.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.