Why we didn't see Amber Heard coming and what it might mean for other women who allege abuse

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The defamation trial between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard took on a cultural significance most people were unprepared for. It made daily headlines, dominated social media platforms, and resulted in the "global humiliation" of a woman who alleged abuse, an ignominy Depp promised in a 2016 text after Heard secured a restraining order against him.

After a much-anticipated verdict Wednesday in which Depp won his defamation lawsuit and Heard partially won her counterclaim, the public engaged in a debate about the forces to blame for the live-streamed spectacle, whether #MeToo is dead or alive, and, most importantly, how the trial will impact survivors with no fame, little power, and far less money than the celebrities in this case.

"I don't think when the trial started most people were clocking it as becoming this major cultural moment," said Jaclyn Friedman, co-editor of "Believe Me: How Trusting Women Can Change the World." "But I really hate that this has become a referendum on #MeToo. #MeToo was a big media moment. It was a hashtag. It is now an organization. It's important, but anti-gender violence work has been a movement for decades, if not centuries, and it will continue. I'm much more interested in the way this is going to impact actual victims."

Analysis: Amber Heard, Johnny Depp and who we choose to believe

Experts say the case – both the verdict and the surrounding media circus – is a loss for survivors of domestic violence and free speech and a win for the forces of privilege and patriarchy. The trajectory of the case took many domestic violence advocates by surprise given that it followed Depp losing his U.K. libel suit, where a London judge found the words of a British newspaper calling Depp a “wife beater" to be "substantially true." The U.S. case also arrived during a time when advocates against gender-based violence in the U.S. were largely preoccupied with a Supreme Court leak suggesting abortion could be overturned.

Some victim advocates say they regretted not recognizing early on how sophisticated and organized efforts were to distort the facts of the case as well as perpetuate myths about domestic abuse, which influenced the public and which legal experts believe may have swayed an un-sequestered jury who went home to their families, phones and televisions each night.

"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," said Shaunna Thomas, co-founder and executive director of UltraViolet, a national gender equality organization. "I am a survivor activist, a gender justice activist, and I was served an unbelievable amount of content from so-called survivors and feminists taking Johnny Depp's side. There was nothing authentic about it. I think once people realized that, they did start weighing in in Amber Heard's defense. But at that point, it was too late."

'We are beyond the hashtag. We are a movement.'

The case has catalyzed an impassioned debate about how public reaction to the trial and the verdict itself may impact the fight against gender-based violence.

A headline on "New York Times" opinion columnist Michelle Goldberg's piece on the trial last month read "Amber Heard and the death of #MeToo." After the verdict, Meghan McCain tweeted #MeToo is dead." Activist Tarana Burke, who first used the hashtag more than 10 years ago to highlight the experiences of poor young women of color who had been abused, vehemently disagreed.

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"When you get the verdict you want, 'the movement works' - when you don't, it's dead. "When Weinstein went to jail it was, "me too is winning!" When Cosby came home, it was "What a blow, me too is losing!" she tweeted. "You can't kill us. We are beyond the hashtag. We are a movement."

Nicole Bedera, a sociologist who studies sexual victimization and perpetration, said the case likely portends more defamation suits against people who allege abuse, but she is hopeful the setback won't undermine #MeToo.

"I am optimistic that it will be a radicalizing moment for many survivors who are eager to defend their rights," she said.

'People want to kill me every day'

Most criticisms around the case focused on the ways in which it devolved into a media spectacle. Thomas said from what her organization observed, this was not accidental.

Analysis: Before Amber Heard took the stand, Johnny Depp already won

"This isn't some organic function of endemic sexism and misogyny in society rearing its ugly head. This is funded and coordinated and it's strategic," she said.

On TikTok, the hashtag #JusticeForJohnnyDepp has 19.5 billion views, while #JusticeForAmberHeard has 75 million.

Thomas said her organization watched as men's rights activists within the manosphere, defined by the Southern Poverty Law Center as "a constellation of anti-women websites, subreddits, blogs and forums" supported Depp and spread virulent content about Heard online. An investigation by Vice published in May found Ben Shapiro’s the Daily Wire spent thousands of dollars promoting ads with anti-Heard bias. During the trial, Heard said a Depp-coordinated “campaign echoed every day on social media” made her fear for her life and the life of her child.

“I am harassed, humiliated, threatened, every single day,” Heard said. “People want to kill me every day. People want to put my baby in the microwave, and they tell me that.”

Thomas said the infrastructure to neutralize these kinds of attacks is under-resourced. Heard's legal team said Thursday they believed the overwhelming amount of pro-Depp content, which often perpetuated rampant myths about domestic abuse, likely swayed the jury.

"They went home every night. They have families. The families are on social media. We had a 10-day break in the middle because of the judicial conference. There’s no way they couldn’t have been influenced by it," Heard's lawyer Elaine Bredehoft told the "Today" show.

Jennifer Becker, legal director at Legal Momentum and former NYC sex crimes and child abuse prosecutor, said she wasn't surprised the jury wasn’t sequestered, given that sequestering is extremely rare. Attorney and victims’ rights advocate Shari Karney, who said she watched the majority of the trial in real-time, said in this case she believes sequestering was warranted.

"There was a disconnect between what I was observing in the trial and what was going on on social media. It was like separate universes," she said.

With defamation lawsuits, the 'motivation is intimidation, harassment, and an attempt to silence'

After the verdict, Heard released a statement saying she was “heartbroken that the mountain of evidence still was not enough to stand up to the disproportionate power, influence, and sway of my ex-husband." She said she was "even more disappointed with what this verdict means for other women."

Becker said in the last few years, she has seen exponential growth in retaliatory defamation lawsuits brought against survivors for speaking out in ways that should be protected. She's seen a survivor on a college campus sued for defamation after her sexual assault report launched a Title IX investigation. She currently has a client being sued for defamation for speaking at a congressional subcommittee hearing.

"What we've noticed about a lot of these retaliatory lawsuits is the merit of the lawsuit is not the motivation. The motivation is intimidation, harassment, and an attempt to silence," she said.

Legal experts who work with abuse survivors say they are concerned about the case's impact on survivors, who always do a mental calculation about the risks and costs of coming forward. They are concerned victims will further distrust the justice system, whether they are trying to secure a restraining order or initiate divorce proceedings. They argue it sets a precedent to sue a victim into silence.

"It has a chilling effect on victims because what you're going to be facing as a victim is being disparaged, disbelieved, distrusted, disrespected," Karney said. "At the end of the day, I feel like nobody wins."

In a statement on Thursday, the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence said it was "appalled" by the verdict and condemned the trial as "entertainment," likening it to other high-profile cases of domestic violence, including Lorena Bobbitt, the O.J. Simpson case, the murder of Laci Peterson, and Chris Brown's assault of Rihanna.

"We witnessed in real-time an abuser gaslighting, a common technique used to manipulate others, specifically systems into misidentifying a victim for an abuser and an abuser for a victim," the organization said in a statement.

'We can't leave educating the public about intimate partner violence up to TikTok'

Heard was successfully sued by Depp for writing in a 2018 Washington Post op-ed that “two years ago, I became a public figure representing domestic abuse, and I felt the full force of our culture’s wrath for women who speak out.”

Experts say if this case did nothing else, it proved her point.

"It doesn't matter what forum you reveal that you've been a victim, the risk that you take in revealing that is much greater than any reward to someone to fabricate that," Becker said. "Nothing good comes from speaking publicly. You stand to gain nothing."

Experts say eradicating gender-based violence is not an amorphous cultural problem. It requires better education around abuse as well as an investment in systems change and structural reform.

"In the United States, most people only get education about violence against women through sensationalized media or their own personal experiences," Bedera said. "There is a lot of misinformation and that impacts women just as much as it impacts men – and that is particularly true in this case. We can't leave educating the public about intimate partner violence up to TikTok."

Thomas said she expects the case will have a ripple effect that won't fully be understood for some time.

"I reject categorically the idea that this is the end bracket of the #MeToo movement," she said. "It is so much bigger than Johnny Depp or the men's rights movement. This is just one more component, just like abortion bans are, of the last gasp of violent patriarchy recognizing that things are changing, that business as usual, in terms of a male dominant society, is not going to persist. But it's not going to end by magic. We have to do the work."

Actor Amber Heard listens in the courtroom at the Fairfax County Circuit Courthouse in Fairfax, Va., Monday, May 23, 2022.
Actor Amber Heard listens in the courtroom at the Fairfax County Circuit Courthouse in Fairfax, Va., Monday, May 23, 2022.

If you are a victim of domestic violence, The National Domestic Violence Hotline allows you to speak confidentially with trained advocates online or by the phone, which they recommend for those who think their online activity is being monitored by their abuser (800-799-7233). They can help survivors develop a plan to achieve safety for themselves and their children.

Safe Horizon's hotline offers crisis counseling, safety planning, and assistance finding shelters 1(800) 621-HOPE (4673). It also has a chat feature where you can reach out for help from a computer or phone confidentially. 

Survivors can also call the New York City Anti-Violence Project's 24/7 English/Spanish hotline at 212-714-1141 and get support. If calling is not safe but email is possible, make a report at avp.org/get-help and leave safe contact information, and someone will reach out.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: After Amber Heard, are we asking the wrong questions about #MeToo?