The Johnny Depp-Amber Heard trial was a pop culture obsession. Saudi trolls may have had a hand in that

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As far as celebrity court battles go, the six-week legal row in 2022 between Hollywood superstar Johnny Depp and his ex-wife, actress Amber Heard, was a pop culture juggernaut reminiscent of the O.J. Simpson murder trial in the 1990s. 

The trial, held in a Virginia courtroom, centred on duelling defamation claims from both parties, stemming from allegations of domestic abuse in their relationship. (You can read about the complicated case and its outcome here.)

Like the Simpson trial, when the former NFL star was acquitted of the 1994 murders of his ex-wife and her friend, Depp v. Heard offered fodder for cable news channels and tabloids alike. 

But what set the Depp-Heard case apart is something that didn’t exist during Simpson’s trial — the powerful and far-reaching influence of social media. 

A new podcast investigates whether the hype and opinions surrounding the case may have been orchestrated, in part, by Saudi Arabia-backed online trolls and bots to discredit and vilify Heard. 

Such an influence campaign may have swayed public opinion and possibly the fairness of the trial. But not only that — it may also be a warning ahead of the dozens of elections worldwide set for this year, said Alexi Mostrous, the investigative journalist behind the podcast Who Trolled Amber?, made with producer Xavier Greenwood and released by London-based Tortoise Media.

“Hypothetically, if these people’s opinions had been kind of somehow manipulated, then that definitely has wider ramifications,” Mostrous said in an interview this week with CBC Listen’s Front Burner.

LISTEN | Was there a coordinated effort to smear Amber Heard online?: 

Front Burner25:59Johnny Depp, Amber Heard, and a legion of Saudi-backed bots

Who really trolled Amber?

Mostrous spoke with trial experts, disinformation analysts and a former Canadian spy named Daniel Maki, who spotted something suspicious about the flurry of trolling early on. 

Maki told him it looked like a co-ordinated effort on Twitter, now known as X.

“There is no fucking way that was all organic,” Maki said in the first episode of Who Trolled Amber?, which was released on Feb. 26.

Mostrous told Front Burner host Jayme Poisson that pro-Depp and anti-Heard posts began many months before the start of the U.S. trial and after Depp lost a 2020 libel trial in the U.K., against the parent company of The Sun, a tabloid newspaper, over an article referring to him as a “wife beater.” 

Amber Heard waits before the jury announced a split verdict in favour of both her and ex-husband Johnny Depp in the Depp v. Heard civil defamation trial in Fairfax, Va., on June 1, 2022. (Evelyn Hockstein/Pool/AFP/Getty Images)

Depp has never been charged in connection with the alleged abuse of Heard. He has also accused her of domestic violence. 

There was real-world derision of Heard during the U.S. trial: Joe Rogan, for example, referred to her as “manipulative and full of shit” on his highly popular podcast. 

But social media was the driving force in turning public opinion against the Aquaman actress and possibly even the outcome of the trial itself, Mostrous suggested, noting that the jury hadn’t been sequestered. 

WATCH | Depp v. Heard in the court of public opinion: 

The social media trial of Johnny Depp v Amber Heard

In the court of public opinion, actor Johnny Depp is winning sympathy from social media users who mock his ex-wife Amber Heard and re-enact her claims of abuse for views. There are concerns their highly publicized court battle, which has been livestreamed online, will prevent domestic abuse survivors from speaking out.

Working with researchers to comb through about a million tweets sent in the lead-up to the U.S. trial, Mostrous said they found “inauthentic activity” from accounts operating in far-flung countries like Thailand and Spain. 

Many of them appeared to belong to fans who would post about all things Depp — or how much they hated Heard. 

Individual posts would be shared thousands of times. The red flag, he said, was that there would be very few replies to those posts.

“No one does a tweet that is retweeted 25,000 times with only three people replying to it,” he said.

Mostrous took a deep dive using the Wayback Machine, a digital archive of the internet, and found some of those same accounts had deleted hundreds of posts before 2022 that had nothing to do with Depp or Heard.

Those posts, he said, were in Arabic and contained pro-Saudi government messaging.

A man on the right side of the frame holds up a sign reading "I stand with Amber" as a crowd of people behind him cheer and hold signs in support of actor Johnny Depp.
Dan Kim demonstrates in support of Amber Heard, countering a throng of Johnny Depp supporters rally outside of Fairfax County Courthouse on Friday, May 27, 2022. (Craig Hudson/The Associated Press)

The Hollywood star and the crown prince

Saudi Arabia has reportedly previously used what’s known as a troll farm to harass dissidents and influence public opinion in its favour.

A New York Times article in October 2018 laid out one such operation aimed at Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi columnist for the Washington Post who was murdered and dismembered inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul that month. 

But the big question remains: why would Saudi Arabia care so much about the Pirates of the Caribbean star that it would carry out a smear campaign against his ex-wife? 

Depp, said Mostrous, has some interesting ties to Saudi investments and to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, commonly known as MBS. 

“Saudi Arabia partly financed, through millions of dollars, the last two films that Johnny Depp produced,” he told Poisson, referring to its Red Sea Film Foundation. 

According to a February article from Vanity Fair, the actor’s team is in talks with the Saudi government to secure “an annual seven-figure deal for him to attend events and shoot films in the country.”

A man with sunglasses on his face and his hair tied back in a ponytail stands in front of a wall covered in green leaves and large gold letters reading "Red Sea FF 2023."
Johnny Depp at the opening of the Red Sea Film Festival in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on Nov. 30, 2023. The Red Sea Film Foundation has financed two films Depp produced. (Ammar Abd Rabbo/Red Sea Film Festival/AFP/Getty Images)

But the relationship isn’t just professional, said Mostrous. Depp and the crown prince “seem to have formed a very close personal friendship.” 

Although Mostrous presented curious connections, he did not explicitly say Depp, his publicity and legal teams, MBS or anyone else connected to the Saudi government was actively involved in an online manipulation operation against Heard.

Mostrous also states in each episode of Who Trolled Amber? that the team’s attempts to reach Depp for comment went unanswered. 

He told Poisson that he did speak with Heard, but that the conversation was off the record.

LISTEN | Netflix docuseries dives into the Depp-Heard courtroom drama: 

13:01Depp v. Heard and the defamation case witnessed around the world

Heeding the warning from Heard trolling

Mostrous said it’s incredibly easy to set up a troll operation, even with just a few hundred dollars.

“The more money you have, the more sophisticated it’s going to be.”

That, he said, should raise concerns in an era when disinformation campaigns and troll accounts have been used to manipulate opinions in elections, wars and genocide

This year, he said, there are more than 50 national elections around the world in countries that are home to half the world’s population. Canada’s own federal election is set for 2025. 

“It’s quite depressing, to be honest.

“It really does show … that it is very, very difficult to really tell what is real and what is fake, what is human and what is not online.”

WATCH | What the jury decided in the Depp-Heard defamation trial: 

Depp wins libel lawsuit against Heard, but both sides guilty of defamation, jury finds

A jury has ruled that Johnny Depp and his ex-wife, actor Amber Heard, were both defamed over claims of abuse before and during their brief marriage.

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