For the past nine weeks, Johnny Depp was TikTok. And TikTok was Johnny Depp. Now, after just one post thanking his fandom, his new account has more than 12 million followers. If the defamation suit the actor brought against ex-wife Amber Heard turned Depp into a meme, then his appearance on the platform that influenced him from Hollywood celebrity to social mediar is the inevitable endgame of a world in which everything is content.
The characters the actor has played—most notably Pirates of the Caribbean’s Captain Jack Sparrow—have previously become memes because of their outlandishness, but the actor himself has now entered the world of his larger-than-life characters. “Depp’s joining of TikTok is interesting because I’m not convinced that would have happened pre-trial, or if that platform hadn’t been so influential in producing content and shaping opinion,” says Rebecca Williams, associate professor in media audiences and participatory culture at the University of South Wales.
What’s more, Depp’s first post on TikTok—a highlighting reel of him performing and driving past his adoring fans at the conclusion of the trial, during which a jury found Heard liable for defamation for a 2018 Washington Post op-ed in which she claimed to be a “public figure representing domestic abuse” (she did not name Depp)—is something of a thank you. “The appeal to fans’ sense of connection and recognition here is clear,” Williams says. That sense was supercharged by TikTok’s algorithm, which pushed Depp content into feeds, creating a cycle that dragged more people in and demanded yet more content.
It’s what Tom Divon, social media, communications, and culture researcher at Hebrew University in Israel, calls “common pathways of generational memetic communication”—which translates to not wanting to feel left out of a watercooler moment. In 2022, the easiest way to engage with a watercooler moment is by making content … lots of content. Some videos overlaid what Heard and Depp’s inner thoughts might have been during the trial, while others compared each one’s courtroom behavior to assign guilt.
Since the trial began in mid-April, TikTok has become the 21st-century version of Court TV, and Depp has become a hero to his followers. Footage from the trial, and reactions to its twists and turns, took over TikTok. In late April, videos using the hashtag #johnnydepp had 11.3 billion views, and #justiceforjohnnydepp a further 5.6 billion. Now, that’s closer to 34.1 billion and 20.4 billion. The hashtags have proven “extremely popular,” according to TikTok’s own hashtag analytics tool, with #johnnydepp trending for the last 71 days, and #justiceforjohnnydepp for 58 days.
The popularity of content generated its own momentum, with users creating videos to feed the near-insatiable interest in the trial. There were supercuts of the key moments in testimony collated by users who acted as talking heads about the trial’s developments, and conspiracy theories about whether Heard’s legal representative was a Depp fan, after having purportedly appeared at a premier moviee for Depp’s 2013 film, The Lone Ranger. One TikTok user even claimed, without evidence, to be one of the jurors deliberating on the case in order to capitalize on the attention.
TikTok’s algorithm turned the trial into a social media circus, with ill-informed legal commentary sitting alongside outright fictionalizations of events in the court case—all of it pushed to millions of users by TikTok’s finely honed algorithm, whether they wanted it or not. TikTok declined to comment for this story.
The ubiquity of Depp-related content on TikTok—which has become a major driver of cultural conversation—made it inevitable that Depp would join the app. “Even if the verdict was different, the sentiment shaped by his TikTok tribe was highly influential,” says Divon. Memes became fact, and horrifying details of what Depp was alleged to have said and done to Heard were smoothed over by the social media frenzy.