Johnny Depp vs. Amber Heard trial is the new Twitch meta


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Twitch’s biggest English-speaking star, Félix “xQc” Lengyel, is hunched in his chair with one leg up, staring at his monitor in rapt silence. Over 100,000 viewers watch with him on his stream as Amber Heard’s legal team argues that much of Johnny Depp’s evidence should be dismissed because he, in their view, has admitted to abuse. Lengyel seethes as Heard’s attorney says Depp called Heard “numerous vile names” in a now-notorious video of Depp trashing a kitchen. “After having his finger cut off!” Lengyel shouts in response.

Not long after, Lengyel opens a YouTube link a viewer shared with him, describing it as “Amber Heard’s lawyer.” It’s a clip from the 2013 action video game “Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance,” in which the main character Raiden asks a corrupt senator to back up something he’s said with a source. “My source is that I made it the f— up!” the senator retorts. Lengyel laughs as everybody in his blazing-fast chat spams “OMEGALUL,” Twitch’s louder, more derisive version of “lol.”

This sort of tonal ping-ponging is characteristic of many Twitch streams of the ongoing trial, which began with Depp suing Heard for defamation over a 2018 op-ed that ran in The Washington Post. In the weeks since the trial began, both sides have accused each other of verbal and physical abuse, with Heard’s team unsuccessfully motioning to have the suit dismissed. The trial has played out in the public eye thanks to a freely available YouTube stream of the proceedings as well as ample press coverage. As a result, it’s been put under millions of microscopes on TikTok, where Jack Sparrow stans have rallied around Depp and aspiring sleuths have doggedly mined the past for smoking guns.

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In recent weeks, Twitch has followed a similar path, with the trial ushering in a new “meta” — the Twitch term for a trendy viewership goldmine — that sees stars and small fries alike broadcasting Depp and Heard’s ugly legal throwdown for hours each day. (Twitch is owned by Amazon, whose founder, Jeff Bezos, owns The Washington Post.)

This makes for a different dynamic than TikTokers’ piecemeal reports and memes. Twitch streamers react in real time, whether they have relevant knowledge about what they’re witnessing or not. But in some ways, this particular case puts them on even footing with everybody else: Regardless of platform, those tuning in and piping up are working with incomplete evidence and, until earlier this week, one side’s testimony.

This lack of conclusiveness has left people ravenous for additional information, which allows Twitch streams to function as a supplement, something that at least feels like more context as the trial plays out before viewers’ eyes. But even though Twitch has diversified far beyond video games, it remains an entertainment platform first and foremost.

“People are trying to learn more context about the witnesses and their statements, as well as the American justice system in general,” said a Twitch streamer named Monika who did not share her last name but goes by the handle “Shaperka.” But viewers aren’t just seeking out entertainers for an education. “Viewers and streamers tend to make jokes about everything going on, including Amber Heard and her facial expressions, clothes and hair, her lawyers and their failures, but also drug addiction and other serious topics.”

Deployed adeptly, this can make difficult material more digestible, true crime-focused Twitch streamer Ericka “Boze” Bozeman said.

“I use comedy and fast-paced conversations to diffuse tension and make Gen Z audiences and those with short attention spans pay attention to serious issues,” she said, “because when it gets too serious, some people don’t listen. And they need to.”

Hot tub, Just Chatting and video game streamer Aurora Starr said that while she doesn’t believe anyone should make sweeping declarations until all evidence has been presented, she thinks it’s important to take what Depp is saying
seriously because male abuse victims rarely come forward.

“I think that bringing attention to the fact that women are capable of abuse as well is extremely important,” Starr said. “Men seem to be taught to deal with it and not defend themselves against women. … That is wrong.”

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Streamers to whom The Post spoke said they try to emphasize that they’re not experts in law, psychology or other fields related to the contentious case. But millions of viewers nonetheless use them as a primary source when interpreting thorny subjects like abuse. This means that broadcasts might include a relevant anecdote one moment, an off-color joke the next and misinformation right after, all on a platform established with video games — and the competition and sides-taking that entails — in mind.

Some Twitch users have voiced discomfort with this dynamic.

“It’s a huge bummer seeing grown people on Twitch streams watching the Johnny Depp/Amber Heard hearings and doing bits about them and laughing at them,” one viewer said on Twitter.

The trial itself hasn’t been devoid of entertainment value. On YouTube, the case has been presented in a way that frequently focuses on Depp and Heard’s faces, emphasizing conflict and reactions over the substance of arguments. The case itself, meanwhile, has swerved in comedic directions, such as when a doorman vaped during his otherwise serious testimony, causing Depp and the jury to laugh. And of course, the trial ultimately centers around two celebrities. It’s not a normal court case.

David Pakman, a progressive political commentator and streamer who’s broadcasting the trial to examine specific ways legal teams argue their cases, said even as he takes a relatively straightforward approach, he sees Depp and Heard working the crowd.

“In Johnny Depp’s testimony and cross-examination, he is very clearly calculating every facial expression and pause and delivery. He is a good actor, and he’s just as entertaining in a court context,” Pakman said. “There are moments where everybody in the court is laughing, and it’s clear that it’s an entertaining moment. Then it shifts to very serious allegations of domestic violence. [As a streamer] you kind of are constantly threading the needle.”

Viewing the trial through the lens of entertainment, however, has knock-on effects, whether intended or not. As on TikTok, many Twitch viewers regard the trial as a sky-scraping showdown between good and evil. Like the real-life crowds that gather outside the courthouse each morning, they’re squarely in Depp’s corner, due to what they view as a preponderance of evidence in his favor. Any time Heard or her attorneys take the stand, chats fill with demands for additional evidence and accusations that she’s faking it. Evidence that’s been used to paint Depp in a negative light — profane text messages and recordings, for example — does not surface in chat as often. When it does, supporters tend to take Depp’s side and frame his actions as understandable outcomes of Heard’s, creating a hero-villain dynamic between the two key figures in the trial.

Not every streamer agrees with this perspective, however.

“Everything is a Marvel story,” leftist political pundit and Twitch star Hasan “HasanAbi” Piker said during a recent stream. “Life is not like that.”

Piker went on to espouse a viewpoint that’s proven unpopular online: Depp and Heard have both perpetrated forms of wrongdoing against each other. Depp, in Piker’s estimation, is not squeaky clean despite overwhelming fan support, and he believes some commentators have tried to use the trial to evangelize their long-held beliefs, sometimes in sexist ways.

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That’s not the case for everyone, said Bozeman, who openly supports Depp in her broadcasts. Some streamers and viewers have used the trial as a conduit for their own stories of abuse or relationships gone awry. For many, it’s personal, she said.

“On my YouTube and Twitch channel[s] I have been covering liars, manipulators and narcissistic abuse and court cases for over three years,” Bozeman said. “This is a classic case of abuse, and it’s in my home state of Virginia, so I’m very passionate about it.”

On Twitch and across the Internet at large, the trial is a carnage-strewn pileup of priorities, fears, doubts and beliefs. It’s yet another nexus point of the current cultural moment, a byproduct of having constant drip-feeds of information practically wired to the palms of our hands. And yet, said Monika, it’s not like this whole thing is unprecedented.

“It feels like a dystopian future I would never [have] imagined I’d see few years back,” she said, “and simultaneously I’m reminded of our history: burning witches and public beheadings. I guess it’s in human nature.”


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