A shadow box above Rebecca’s dining-room table, hanging there since 2006, displays an autographed copy of the Pirates of the Caribbean script—signed by Keira Knightley, Orlando Bloom, and Johnny Depp. Though Rebecca, at age 36, is emphatically no longer a Depp fan, she says she keeps the script on her wall as a conversation starter. If someone asks about it, maybe she’ll go into the full story, rather than pretending she never liked Depp. “Also it’s not like it’s his smug little face,” she told me.
That face is everywhere right now, on account of Depp’s ongoing and highly public lawsuit against his ex-wife Amber Heard. The case is complicated, and the testimony is rife with sordid, disturbing details. In short, Depp has taken Heard to court for defamation over a 2018 essay she published in The Washington Post that identified her as a victim of domestic abuse and sexual violence. Heard also made abuse allegations when she filed for divorce from Depp in early 2016, and was granted a restraining order against him.
Rebecca felt betrayed by Depp when Heard came forward with her story, and has since renounced her fandom. But she’s been positively horrified by the behavior of Depp’s other fans, who have spent the past several years trying to discredit Heard as a “gold digger” and a “monster.” (I agreed to identify Rebecca by only her first name because she was concerned about harassment from this community.) In April, when fans’ efforts picked up momentum, Rebecca started a Twitter account called @LeaveHeardAlone, with a plan to document and counter the ridiculous claims that #DeppfordWives, as she and others call them, have made about Heard. When these supporters circulated images of Heard having gruesome face makeup applied, for example, they claimed that the pictures showed a plot to frame Depp. Rebecca debunked that. She also wrote to Snopes, the fact-checking site, asking it to address the grotesque conspiracy theory that Heard murdered her own mother in 2020 to prevent her from testifying in support of Depp in the U.K. trial. (Snopes has addressed several other rumors regarding the trial, but not that one.)
Rebecca’s new Twitter account has not many more than 500 followers, which means she is far, far outnumbered by the other side. The pro-Depp, anti-Heard stance is now a dominant trend on social media. Across the web, Heard’s supposed lies have been turned into all manner of memes, and even, by one cosmetics company, a piece of marketing material. On TikTok, couples have been acting out violent moments as described in Heard’s testimony, in order to highlight their alleged absurdity. On Tumblr, Depp supporters continue to circulate the debunked claim that Heard plagiarized part of her opening statement from Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley. On Twitter, I was personally surprised to see that even many of the Harry Styles fans I follow are, for whatever reason, adamantly anti-Heard. “Makes me sick listening to Amber Heard,” one wrote. “Literally amber heard is the plague,” wrote another.
Rebecca sees a twisted logic in this hatred. For Millennials in particular, she told me, fans’ sense of their own morality is deeply entwined with fandom. “We hang so much of our own identity on these things that we love,” she said. “So if those things are threatened, you either have to admit that you’re sort of a bad person for liking those things or you have to convince yourself that everyone else is wrong.”
One could blame “the Deppford Wives” for all these online smears, but that’s not exactly right. Some of the most active commenters aren’t so much determined fans of Johnny Depp as anti-fans of Amber Heard.
Hilde Van den Bulck, a professor of communication at Drexel University, has studied the version of fandom that inverts its practices and creates a community of denigration. Where fandom tends to derive from a positive emotion (I love this actor; I love that character), anti-fandom draws from just the opposite, and nurtures negative feelings toward a famous person or character. Fans and anti-fans both express themselves through online sleuthing: They hang on the object of their fascination’s every word, and analyze every detail of that person’s wardrobe and hairstyling and self-presentation. “Anti-fans know as much about their object of anti-fandom as fans do about their object of fandom,” Van den Bulck said. Their relationship with the celebrity they despise is “often very deep, very emotional.”
Some anti-fans are disillusioned former fans (I used to love celebrity X, but now … ). Others’ hatred may be unprovoked (I just can’t stand celebrity X, and resent their place in public life). In many situations, as Van den Bulck explains it, anti-fans and fans are overlapping groups: The anti-fan of celebrity X hates celebrity X because celebrity X harmed celebrity Y, of whom the anti-fan is a fan.
I’ve come across this latter group before. In 2020, I reported on fandom communities that were fixated on theories that the male objects of their fandom were being manipulated and tortured by less-famous, female romantic partners. A faction of Benedict Cumberbatch fans believed that his wife, Sophie Hunter, was part of an international crime ring and had faked all of her pregnancies. (This is not true.) A faction of One Direction fans believed that the band member Louis Tomlinson was gay and forcibly closeted by the entertainment industry, and that his ex-girlfriend and the mother of his child, Briana Jungwirth, was central to the conspiracy. (This is not true.) The anti-fans I wrote about tried to prove their claims by examining hundreds of photographs and video clips—just as the Depp fans and Heard anti-fans are doing now. They also hunted for evidence that their beloved celebrities were winking at them, offering tiny, secret rewards for seeing the truth. One Direction fans claimed that Tomlinson was posting things on certain dates or at certain times so that the digits would make a coded message, just for them. Similarly, Depp fans look for signs that he is grateful for their support, and that he is trying to entertain them from inside the courtroom.
These fans, who are also anti-fans, subject the women they hate to body-shaming and wild criminal accusations, and skewer them using sexist tropes. The targets of their anti-fandom are manipulative and ambitious, as a rule, but also stupid. They are glamorous and seductive, but also secretly disgusting. When I interviewed a Cumberbatch fan who was a firm believer in the conspiracy theories about his wife, she identified herself as a feminist. It was Hunter, she said, who was “setting women’s rights back [and] making everybody look bad.” Many Depp supporters now make the same argument. They insist that they are not a reactionary movement trying to undo the work of the #MeToo movement, and that questioning Heard’s claims does not make them misogynistic. If anything, she is the one who is making a joke out of #MeToo, and making things harder for “real” victims of abuse. Lady Victoria Hervey, a small-time British model and socialite with some 300,000 Instagram followers, has written that Heard “sounds like she would be more at home in a psych ward,” and referred in a recent Instagram story to “girls like these that constantly make things up.” “So many are sick of these fake me too movement victims who are ruining it for real victims of domestic abuse,” she wrote to me in an email, declining to speak further. (Hervey has also espoused “New World Order” conspiracy theories and described the pandemic as a “eugenics program.”)
Online events as sprawling and bizarre as this one can be hard to make sense of while they’re still unfolding. But the history of the social internet offers precedents. Mary, a 34-year-old Tumblr user who has been involved in fandom since the late ’90s, and who asked to remain anonymous out of concern about harassment, recently published a long post about her experiences with misogyny in fandom. She described a sexist meltdown among fans of Marvel’s Loki TV show, when many became outraged that a character played by Sophia Di Martino had become Loki’s love interest. Fans unconvincingly accused Di Martino of transphobia, “in order to justify online abuse and harassment,” Mary wrote; she compared this to the way that fans were turning on Heard and weaponizing whatever they could find or make up about her. “It’s kind of always exactly the same and yet has so many specific, annoying details to it,” she told me: The language of social justice is often contorted to make a case for whomever the fandom has chosen to support. In the Loki meltdown, objection to Di Martino’s continued presence on the show was framed as allyship with trans people. Now support for Depp is taken as a sign of allyship with male victims of abuse.
“The idea is that #MeToo came along and then Amber Heard saw it and was opportunistic about it, which is a narrative that completely falls apart when you remember that she got divorced before #MeToo even happened,” Mary said. But modern celebrity fandom encourages fans to look for the narrative they want to see. Little clues are everywhere, and new source material is never-ending. If fandom has become more conspiratorial—and I think it has—that must be due, in part, to the way that social media has created immediate incentives for amateur sleuthing. It also reflects a loss of faith, among some fans, in the practices and motives of mainstream media. Maybe, the thinking goes, regular journalists just aren’t looking hard enough for these extremely compelling stories.
On Instagram, for example, pro-Depp and anti-Heard fans, including Hervey, have gathered around Jessica Reed Kraus—a onetime lifestyle influencer who has built a huge audience by providing narratives about pop culture and true-crime stories that are more interesting than the ones provided by traditional media outlets. She has described the current trial as “a movie in itself” and “the great Shakespearian tragedy of our age.” Live-blogging it on her Instagram Stories, she intersperses her opinions on publicly available information with allusions to insider details, which come to her through mysterious “sources.” “I’m working round the clock,” she posted recently. “Meaning no sleep, poor hydration, non-stop digging and a lil wine. It’s consuming and exhausting but it MATTERS.”
These are elements of a new paranoid style among fan communities that already has many observable hallmarks. Recently, Kraus mocked Heard for seeming to pause while wiping her face with a tissue, supposedly so that photographers would have ample time to get a tearful snap. This theory—that Heard’s Kleenex was a false flag—is remarkably similar to one circulated among One Direction fans for years, that Louis Tomlinson’s ex-girlfriend would stage events for paparazzi as a way of concocting evidence in favor of her lies. Depp supporters have also suggested that Heard’s daughter, Oonagh, who was born via surrogate last year, is secretly the child of Elon Musk, and that Musk has some larger role to play in an immense conspiracy. Many fan theories incorporate a superpowerful person in the celebrity’s orbit, as well as lies about paternity.
The people who get involved in this kind of speculation also tend to cite unexpected fields of expertise: special-effects makeup, for example, that could be used to create fake swelling under someone’s eye. The Cumberbatch fans appealed to insider knowledge of the storage of government documents, such as birth certificates. When we spoke, Mary noted another similarity between Sophie Hunter’s critics and Heard’s: The former was accused of being photographed with cocaine all over her clothes (she wasn’t), and the latter was accused of sneaking a bump of cocaine while testifying in court (she … didn’t).
These are usually complicated theories, all the better to be discussed for months or years on end, but they’re tied together by something simple: anger at a woman in the public eye. Rebecca told me that the Depp fans had seemed to lose interest, at a certain point, in defending Johnny Depp. They were “just using him as a platform,” she said. Now they’ve become obsessed with someone else, and they’re not about to let her go.