Women reporting domestic violence in Australia now reference the Johnny Depp-Amber Heard case when discussing their fears of speaking up about their own abuse, according to a charity.
In the two months since actor Depp won his defamation case against ex-partner Heard, charities say the negative impact of social media as much as the result itself has damaged the perception DV survivors have of how they will be treated.
Hayley Foster, the chief executive director at Full Stop Australia, which provides help to victims of domestic and family violence, told Central News while there had been no noticeable decrease in women seeking help, publicity around the case was “acting like a warning” to survivors.
“There is always a general hesitancy to reach out for help or support, but we haven’t noticed a marked change,” she said. “Survivors do, however, refer to the case when we are speaking with them, as to other support service agency workers.
“It’s acting like a warning for what might happen to you if you dare to speak out.”
Experts fear publicity around the case, which polarised opinion and in particular saw Heard targeted online by pro-Depp commenters, may endanger domestic violence survivors.
What we’re hearing is that it’s having a very chilling effect on their want or capacity to speak out about what’s happened to them.
The jury in the six-week trial that ended in June found Heard defamed Depp in a 2018 opinion piece, that did not mention him by name, but which Depp argued clearly referred to him. The verdict granted $US15 million ($21.8 million) to Depp in combined damages and Heard $US2 million in compensatory damages. Heard is appealing the ruling.
Depp’s victory reignited valuable conversations around male victims of domestic violence. According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, one in 16 men have experienced physical or sexual violence by a current or previous partner. One in six has experienced emotional abuse.
However, the trial also uncovered an ugly and misogynistic side to this conversation, that was largely played out on social media.
At times it felt like two trials were taking place – one inside the courtroom and the other on the internet.
#JusticeforJohnnyDepp trended on Twitter in support of Depp, and the same tag on TikTok garnered billions of views. A counter hashtag, #JusticeforAmberHeard, had millions fewer, with much of the content still supporting Depp.
During Depp’s stand, there was a notably sharp increase in Google searches worldwide regarding his innocence. For Heard, it was less than half.
Foster said that the case’s public nature and online presence were harrowing and traumatising for her clients.
“What we’re hearing is that it’s having a very chilling effect on their want or capacity to speak out about what’s happened to them,” she said.
Others have been critical of both Depp and Heard’s behaviour in the the court case as irresponsible and damaging for DV survivors.
Alice* was among many individuals who felt the trial misrepresented women and their domestic violence stories.
“I was happy [Depp] had won because it acknowledges men can be abused as well,” said the mum of two young boys.
“But Amber lost and is now trying to take all women hostage with her. The fact that she has taken no responsibility for her behaviour and outcome is really triggering to me.”
Research by ANROWS showed 15 per cent of media report victim-blaming and offering excuses to the perpetrator. The report further concluded that there is a link between media reporting and the attitudes and beliefs about abuse.
Foster emphasised the importance of how dangerous this notion is.
“Somebody who is wonderful, talented, kind, and many respect and admire them, could also use abuse in their relationships,” she said. “We need to unpack those stereotypes and realise how common it is.”
Both Foster and Alice agree the trial was almost like a stage and used as a tool of enjoyment by social media users.
“[Heard] ‘s up against one of the best actors of all time. Is Johnny acting? I don’t know. I don’t think we’ll ever know,” Alice said.
“For me, when I watch, I see it as entertainment, and I try to keep an open mind to it all.”
The internet is a powerful tool. It can educate and influence the public and play a significant role in shaping the views and biases of many. Channels on YouTube and TikTok streamed the case daily. But, many users relied on sound bites, memes, and clips to understand and keep up with the case.
Tania Farha, the chief executive director of Safe and Equal, which provides family violence support, said antagonistic reporting affected survivors.
“When reporting perpetuates harmful stereotypes, engages in victim-blaming, or excuses perpetrator actions, it only further stigmatises and diminishes a victim’s experience of violence,” she said.
Survivors who see, hear and read this type of reporting… are less likely to feel safe enough to speak out and seek help.
For a case as complex and ruthless as Depp v Heard, social media can struggle to depict the nuances of the case and presents a black and white narrative.
“Survivors who see, hear and read this type of reporting – and the public discussions it encourages – are less likely to feel safe enough to speak out and seek help,” Farha added.
Foster sees the case as a potential setback for survivors.
“Full Stop will continue to support people to speak out safely to speak their truth,” she said. “I don’t think there are any winners here.”
Alice said the case had created a wave of fear and anxiety. With the final slam of the judge’s hammer, the terror of not being believed was evoked.
“I don’t care if I’m believed,” Alice said.
“I share my story where I need to so I can access the supports we need, help others in groups, and with you.”
She continued tearfully telling how overwhelming the whole situation can sometimes be.
“I tend to wake up at 3am and get upset,” she said. “That’s the only time I go there in my mind.”
*Alice is a pseudonym used for legal and privacy reasons.
Family and domestic violence support:
1800 Respect national helpline: 1800 737 732
Women’s Crisis Line: 1800 811 811
Men’s Referral Service: 1300 766 491
Lifeline (24-hour crisis line): 131 114