The defamation case that revealed intimate details of alleged domestic violence between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard left many vilifying Heard online. Now over 200 experts and organizations have published an open letter calling for an end to the harassment faced by the actress and others who report sexual and domestic abuse.
But the letter was met with anger from Depp fans, some of whom flooded the organizers’ Instagram account with disparaging comments. Just hours after the account went live when the letter published on Wednesday, it was suspended for almost a day, highlighting the backlash survivors face when confronting online harassment, Michele Dauber, a Stanford Law School professor and longtime advocate for victims of sexual assault, told The Washington Post.
“This is a letter about the online vitriol and public shaming that Amber Heard experienced as a result of coming forward with allegations of abuse,” said Dauber, who signed the letter. “And it is also about the online attacks against anyone who supported her. It has nothing to do with the trial’s verdict.”
The @letterforamber Instagram account received an onslaught of angry comments — some laced with profanity and decrying Heard as a liar and an abuser, according to screenshots obtained by The Post. The account thus chose to turn off and delete comments that were “so vile and so harassing that it was upsetting other survivors,” Dauber said. Soon after, the account was taken down when users began reporting it.
A spokesperson for Meta, which owns Instagram, said the account was suspended Wednesday night by mistake and none of its content had violated company policies. The account was restored Thursday evening, shortly after The Post inquired about its status.
Heard and her attorneys didn’t respond to requests for comment from The Post. Her sister, Whitney Henriquez, praised Wednesday’s letter, calling it “a much needed breath of fresh air.”
“Finally, the tides are shifting... Finally!” she wrote on an Instagram post.
A counter letter defending Depp, which had garnered over 10,000 signatures by Thursday evening, lambasted the support Heard received as “a kick in the teeth for male victims of domestic abuse.” A spokesman for Depp did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the letters.
Dauber is among the activists, academics, advocacy groups and other organizations to sign the letter defending Heard. It was also signed by actress Constance Wu, feminist icon Gloria Steinem, the National Organization for Women, the Women’s March Foundation and Equality Now. Published some five months after the jury reached its verdict, the document notes that the “vilification of Ms. Heard and ongoing online harassment of her and those who have voiced support for her have been unprecedented in both vitriol and scale.” It also blames “disinformation, misogyny, biphobia, and a monetized social media environment” for exacerbating the intimidation and perpetuating a cycle in which “a woman’s allegations of domestic violence and sexual assault were mocked for entertainment.”
After less than two years of marriage, Heard and Depp finalized their divorce in 2017. A year later, Heard wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post in which she described herself as a “public figure representing domestic abuse,” though she did not accuse Depp by name. The “Pirates of the Caribbean” star sued Heard for $50 million, alleging defamation, and accused her of abuse. She then countersued Depp for $100 million after his lawyer called her accusations a hoax.
For six weeks, the two went head-to-head in a Fairfax County, Va., courtroom, but the proceedings were laid bare for the world to see — on television screens, live streams and viral videos. While both sides fired claims of violence, drug abuse and mistreatment at each other, on social media, public opinion skewed heavily toward Depp, and Heard and her legal team became fodder for countless memes, The Post previously reported. Ultimately, the jury handed down a verdict that favored Depp and awarded him $15 million in damages. However, jurors also found that Heard had been defamed and awarded her $2 million.
Many of those who publicly supported Heard faced backlash online — as did organizations that defended the actress, such as the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Some victims of abuse also began reconsidering legal action against their abusers, said Jessica Taylor, a psychologist and founder of VictimFocus, which challenges discrimination against abuse victims.
“Lots of women told me that they were retracting from cases, that they were deciding to drop action or were deciding to not report their abusers at all,” she told The Post. “They all said that it had shown them a side of the justice system that scared them and made them feel as though they would never be ‘the perfect victim.’ ”
Dauber, the professor, said what motivated her to sign the letter was “the chilling effects” the harassment Heard endured could have on others hoping to report domestic or sexual abuse — violent crimes that surged during the pandemic but are also notoriously underreported. The letter, Dauber said, was part of a concerted effort to showcase unity against public victim-shaming — and to bring attention to how social media platforms not only allowed, but incentivized, the mockery of Heard to proliferate unchecked.
“She was treated this way because the biggest players in harassment and vilification are not internet trolls — it’s Big Tech and social media platforms that made a lot of money,” Dauber said. “It’s an extremely dangerous situation when you have content creators competing to get clicks and eyeballs by putting out content that made fun of Heard so that they can make money, which in turn, of course, makes money for these platforms.”
But some have criticized the timing of the letter, saying the show of support for Heard was “too little and too late,” as Gawker’s Fran Hoepfner wrote Wednesday.
“It is, at best, a show of belated solidarity to bolster the egos of its writers, and at worst, a flagrant and cowardly admission of guilt over further silence,” Hoepfner wrote. “What exactly took so long for something like this to exist?”
Dauber said the belated response was a conflagration of factors, citing the overturning of Roe v. Wade and the need to defend reproductive freedom during the midterms. And whenever groups came forward to defend Heard “they faced enormous vitriol and backlash,” she added.
Still, the lack of immediate action from feminist organizations and advocacy groups disappointed at least one of this week’s letter’s signees.
“There was only a handful of us speaking up, and we were battered with abuse and threats,” Taylor said. “I don’t know whether it was fear, or whether Amber wasn’t the kind of woman they wanted to support, but I don’t think I will ever forget the silence, just as I will never forget the women who stood up.”