The highly charged defamation trial involving Johnny Depp and Amber Heard was contested as much on social media as it was inside a Virginia courtroom in the last six weeks.
The billions of views of various hashtags — an overwhelming amount in favor of Depp — have put a spotlight on the role social media may play in other high-profile trials going forward, and NBC News technology correspondent Jacob Ward said on TODAY Friday that he predicts others will want to figure out a way to achieve a similar treatment as Depp.
"My feeling about the future here is that, putting aside the results here and whether this was in any way coordinated — as you heard there Johnny Depp's camp say, 'We did not pay for this, this was organic' — but if you're in the public eye, and you're in crisis, going forward, you're going look back at this episode, and you're going to think to yourself, how can I get the treatment that Johnny Depp did?" Ward predicted.
The "Pirates of the Caribbean" star was awarded $10.4 million in damages by a jury on Wednesday after suing his ex-wife for $50 million over an op-ed she wrote for The Washington Post in 2018 in which she identified as a “public figure representing domestic abuse.” Heard was awarded $2 million in damages after a jury found a statement made by one of Depp's lawyers against her to be defamatory.
Elaine Charlson Bredehoft, the lawyer for the “Aquaman” star, said on TODAY Thursday that she believes the vitriol against Heard and massive support for Depp on social media had an effect on the jury, which was not sequestered during the trial.
“They went home every night. They have families. The families are on social media. There’s no way they couldn’t have been influenced by it, and it was horrible,” she told Savannah Guthrie. “It really, really was lopsided.
“It’s like the Roman Colosseum how they view this whole case. I was against cameras in the courtroom, and I went on record with that and had argued against it because of the sensitive nature of this, but it made it a zoo.”
Depp's attorneys said in a statement that there was no coordinated smear campaign on social media against Heard.
"As much as Amber’s pr representatives would like to believe that there isn’t any organic, unpaid support for Johnny online, it’s simply not the case," his legal team said. "Johnny’s fans and followers — new and old — have rallied around his truth, and not an ounce of that support was paid for.”
The hashtag #justiceforjohnnydepp has nearly 20 billion views on TikTok, while #justiceforamberheard has over 80 million, as of Friday morning. Hashtags like #amberheardisguilty have 900 million views on social media. A Change.org petition to remove Heard from the cast of "Aquaman 2" has more than 4.5 million signatures.
Heard’s legal team commissioned a report by the firm Bot Sentinel, which has findings not independently confirmed by NBC News, analyzing the negative social media comments against her. Bot Sentinel, an app funded mainly through donations that studies targeted misinformation and harassment campaigns, says it found 300 fake Twitter accounts promoting negative sentiments about Heard. These allegedly fake accounts have not been independently verified by NBC News.
"Targeting her, putting out ‘Amber Heard is an abuser,' 'Amber Heard as a liar,’ and at the same time, those same accounts were amplifying positive stuff about Johnny Depp," Bot Sentinel CEO Christopher Bouzy said on TODAY Friday.
It doesn't take a significant amount of inauthentic accounts to sway opinion, according to Ward.
"It turns out that you really only need a handful of people creating fake accounts, let's say on Twitter, to move the national conversation," Ward said. "When we spoke to the expert we heard there, Christopher Bouzy from Bot Sentinel, his firm has looked into past instances of this and essentially found that with less than 100 accounts, you can move the needle."
Researchers have found past negative attacks mounted on social media against Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, and Vice President Kamala Harris, according to Ward, who reports the case with Heard is different in that it has been ongoing for “more than a year.”
Ward said "you can't necessarily measure" the impact the social media reaction to the trial may have had on the jury, but it's certainly possible they were influenced during their 10-day break.
"Who knows what kind of things may have gotten in second hand there," he said. "It's just the nature of us living in a social media world."
The spectacle may not be over, either. Bredehoft said on TODAY that Heard plans to appeal the ruling, and those proceedings may also be televised. The stakes are high, as Bredehoft said Heard is not able to pay the $10.4 million in damages awarded to Depp.