If you’ve visited Twitch lately, you may have noticed that the most-popular “Just Chatting” category and the front page have been dominated by one thing: the defamation trial between actors Amber Heard and Johnny Depp. What started on April 11 as an in-court battle recounting a toxic relationship filled with abuse and trauma has since attracted top streamers like Pokimane and xQc, who are reacting to — and memeing — the trial. In other words, streaming the Depp v. Heard court case has become a growing trend on the Amazon-owned platform for creators big and small to maximise their viewership, some capitalising off the “entertainment value” of the salacious allegations.
Depp and Heard have history together, having been married from 2015 to 2017 before splitting apart. After their separation, Heard accused Depp of abuse all throughout their marriage, recounting parts of that trauma in a 2018 Washington Post op-ed without explicitly naming him. Since then, the two have been hurling multimillion-dollar lawsuits at each other, leading to the defamation trial that officially entered the Virginia court on April 11.
There’s a lot to parse through in the trial, from harrowing stories of physical and sexual violence to very intimate details about drug addiction. Alongside these serious topics, the trial has been punctuated by unexpected asides, like a testimony from a dude who was vaping while driving his car and Depp doodling during the proceedings. There’s an element of humour alongside the seriousness of the defamation case, which is where streamers have inserted themselves. Many of the Amazon-owned platform’s top broadcasters, from WoW aficionado Asmongold to socialist political commentator Hasanabi, have been streaming the case to tens — sometimes hundreds — of thousands of followers, creating content for their audiences to consume ad nauseam.
This has become the new meta, with streamers pulling in viewers by the thousands. Content creators on Twitch have put both actors’ names in their titles to garner curious viewers, going for variations like “Justice for..” whichever side they’re on and “Amber Heard vs. Johnny Depp Watch Party.” And as streamers attract folks to watch the trial with them, it risks becoming one big watch party full of laughs and memes at trauma’s expense. Streamers like Pokimane have had on-screen counters tracking certain behaviours in the court, such as Heard crying or Depp laughing. Others, including Rainbow Six Siege streamer shortyyguy, were debating their chatters about the merits of both actors’ — particularly Heard’s — testimonies.
Streamers may be using this cultural event to grow their followings, but some viewers — and other broadcasters, according to Launcher reporter and former Kotaku staffer Nathan Grayson — weren’t too keen on the trial becoming a “low effort” content mill. Folks took to Twitter to express their discontent at the apparent weirdness of the Depp v. Heard defamation case being seen as a kinda “sporting event” on Twitch in which streamers pick one side and trash the other. As of now, folks appear to be siding with Depp.
Why do you think Johnny hasn’t looked at Amber through the testimony so far?
— amber heard anti account (@bigbossboze) May 4, 2022
Richard Hoeg, a lawyer who specialises in digital and video game law and is the creator of the Virtual Legality YouTube channel, explained to Kotaku over email part of the reason why folks are enamoured with the Depp v. Heard trial.
“Almost everyone knows Johnny Depp either from his more avant garde work or from his late career Disney renaissance,” Hoeg said, who’s been streaming the trial himself with fellow YouTubers like California-based attorney Alyte Mazeika of Legal Bytes as part of a collective colloquially known as LawTube. “From there, the actual details involved are themselves more salacious than normal even for a case of this type, with cocaine, MDMA, alcohol, severed fingers, bloody writing on walls, hours upon hours of intimate audio clips, and two mutually exclusive descriptions of the world all fighting for attention. Outside of the OJ Simpson trial, we may have never seen a case with such a potent combination of celebrity and salaciousness.”
While he “doesn’t believe the trial was set up as a farce” despite its many comical moments, he’s worried that streamers could spread misinformation.
“I think there’s always a fear that people covering a news story could be doing it in a way that reduces the level of good information out there rather than improves upon it,” Hoeg said. “That’s why Virtual Legality and Legal Bytes work so hard to inform from the position of legal expertise (as well as to entertain). I also think there’s a risk from some quarters in terms of decorum. This is a real case, with very serious allegations by both sides, and there can be a tendency by some to treat it more like a soap opera or sporting event than a legal trial. But with that risk comes opportunity and I think this really is the future of ‘entertainment’ like this. Unfiltered streams of real world events with commentators helping folks understand what they are watching.”
The Depp v. Heard trial will take a short break starting May 9 but plans to reconvene on May 16, with an expected end date scheduled for May 27.