In 2014, a delightful film written and directed by Rajat Kapoor, Ankhon Dekhi, introduced the world to Raje Bauji. The movie opens with Bauji, played by Sanjay Mishra, recounting a recurring dream where he’s flying. Coasting through the sky like a bird, the breeze brushing his face and the wind whistling in his ear, an ineffable feeling permeates his being. Is it joy? Contentment? Whatever name you assign to it, to him, it feels real. Bauji links this feeling to a monumental decision that would change his life: He will only believe the things he can see, hear, or feel as being real. Bauji’s notion of reality is thus defined by what he can empirically verify, leading to bizarre results. The film artfully explores the consequences of a life led with such a seemingly absurd, but staunch, conviction.
Over the past few days, the onslaught of memes and videos about the Johnny Depp-Amber Heard defamation trial has led one to wonder: What would Bauji make of this?
Anyone who has access to the internet would have been exposed to content related to the Depp-Heard trial. Memes, gifs and videos (Reels or TikToks) starring Depp and the disembodied voice of Heard’s lawyer bungling his way through a cross-examination are hard to miss. Axios reported that the trial is getting more online attention in the US than the war in Ukraine and the US Supreme Court’s (leaked) decision to overturn its landmark rulings on abortion. But this is by no means a US-centric phenomenon as millions across the globe are logging in to the live-streamed court proceedings.
A great deal has been written about the unprecedented manner in which this defamation trial is being played out on social media. The trial being live-streamed worldwide is certainly a factor in the attention it is garnering. Both social media influencers and regular people have access to footage of the court proceedings, the cross-examinations, the testimonies, and the oral arguments, on a real-time basis. News reports about sordid trials have always been enormously popular, but they were second-hand narratives being peddled to us with some added spice and glamour. (The “WAGatha Christie” defamation trial, involving the wives of famous English footballers, occurring simultaneously in the UK is a good example of traditional media attention, through op-eds and cartoons, being lavished on a celebrity spat, with a sprinkling of live-blogging of court proceedings thrown in.)
Now, the world has a window into the real thing. You can experience what transpires in the courtroom by simply tuning into a YouTube channel. Surely, Bauji would have approved of this development? If seeing is believing, what better way to form an opinion about a legal battle than watching videos of the trial, right? Well, not quite.
That the online discourse is overwhelmingly in support of Depp will not surprise anyone (even casually) following this saga. But the extent of such support, evidenced by data, is eye-opening. According to a CNN Business article, the hashtag “#JohnnyDeppisInnocent has garnered more than 3 billion” while “#JusticeForAmberHeard has 41 million views.”
These are staggering numbers, particularly when you consider that Depp has lost a libel case in the UK (against The Sun) where the court had ruled that 12 of the 14 alleged incidents of domestic violence he had been accused of, had occurred. Are the billions of people diligently watching every minute of the court proceedings, studiously weighing the evidence being placed on record and independently arriving at their assessment that #JohnnyDeppisInnocent? Frankly, that is hard to believe.
We live in a time where our offline, real lives are incontrovertibly linked to our virtual lives. The content we see online inevitably influences our opinions. Add to that, the rapid decline in our attention span. With so many distractions, it is no wonder we can barely focus on a single object or idea for more than half a minute (the ideal TikTok or Reel runtime). In the not-so-distant past, opinions would have been based on articles or news reports one may have read (perhaps discussing different perspectives) and engaged with, if only for a few minutes. Now, an opinion is more likely based on an Instagram post, a Twitter thread, or a TikTok.
This is not a rant against the proliferation of bite-sized content. They can do tremendous good and can offer a platform to the disenfranchised. They can help convey complex concepts in the simplest forms and democratise knowledge. However, they can also be misused to shape public opinion in quite dangerous ways.
A trial about alleged domestic violence and abuse can be triggering for the victims of such crimes and must be handled with respect and sensitivity. It is worthwhile to remember that what may seem to us as fodder for new memes and gifs, are the lived experiences of not only the people involved in the trial but others who may have faced similar situations. Regardless of the final court ruling in this matter, the mid-trial, and very public, mocking and haranguing of someone who has (allegedly) suffered domestic abuse can have no justification. Especially when the public outrage appears to be purely based on (and fed by) partisan content being shared on social media.
We are unlikely to reverse course on the live-streaming and live-blogging of trials, and will probably see more such instances playing out. The Depp-Heard trial could set the stage for how we choose to engage with social media content related to those future cases. A society which amuses itself with TikToks about potentially traumatic incidents, would be guilty of making the wrong choice.
The writer is a Mumbai-based lawyer