Amber Heard and Johnny Depp in court this week. Photo: AP Photo/Steve Helber, Pool
The Daily Wire spent tens of thousands of dollars promoting misleading news about the Johnny Depp and Amber Heard trial on social media, the Citizens and VICE World News can reveal.
The conservative outlet, founded by Ben Shapiro, is currently the second most popular news publisher on Facebook. It has so far spent between $35,000 and $47,000 on Facebook and Instagram ads promoting articles about the trial, eliciting some four million impressions. The majority of these ads promote one-sided articles and videos with a clear bias against Heard. They are largely promoted via the Facebook pages of high profile conservative figures including right-wing commentator Candace Owens.
Hollywood actor Depp is suing his ex-wife and actor Heard for $50 million, for a 2018 opinion piece she wrote in the Washington Post that described herself as “a public figure representing domestic abuse.” Depp’s team maintains that the piece was about him, though Heard did not name him directly. Heard in turn filed a counterclaim for $100 million in damages. They have accused each other of abuse, which they each deny. The case, taking place in Fairfax, Virginia, US, is ongoing.
The case has become the subject of extensive online commentary and scrutiny in the US. According to data from social-media tracking firm NewsWhip, from the 4th of April to the 16th of May the Depp Heard trial amassed more social media interactions per published article than any other topic, including the Russia Ukraine war or reproductive rights. “Pro-Depp” and “anti-Heard” content in particular has gained traction online; from hashtags such as #amberheardisapsycopath [sic] trending on Twitter to lip syncs mocking Heard’s abuse testimony going viral on TikTok.
Dozens of sites are currently running thousands of Facebook ads capitalising on the trial, which has seen harrowing testimonies and claims of physical, sexual and emotional abuse from both sides. The adverts are part of an ecosystem of ad supported “news” sites, bogus content platforms and click-bait websites which facilitate the spread of misleading, false and polarizing content.
Media non-profit the Citizens Analysed data from the Facebook ad library, which discloses estimates of how much pages are spent on adverts. The analysis shows how the Daily Wire sought to capitalise on the hype around the trial to draw readers to its site while pushing its conservative agenda. Two of the ads are still being promoted now, and have been running for the past fortnight.
One ad promotes an article titled, “The Attempted Character Assassination of Johnny Depp”, which says that “the only negative words written about the Hollywood A-lister came from the occasional film critic. Until he married Amber Heard.” The article included false claims.
It mentions a previous court case, when Depp sued British tabloid newspaper The Sun for libel after it labeled him a “wife beater” in relation to Heard’s allegations of domestic abuse – a case that Depp lost. The article said that, “Depp was able to disprove 12 of Heard’s 14 allegations” but “because of proving a negative is nearly impossible, the judge in the case branded him a ‘monster’ and refused to accept his claims.” In reality the judge said it was more likely than not that 12 out of the 14 instances of abuse alleged had occurred. Evidence presented during the trial showed how both Depp and Heard had referred to Depp as having a “monster” side to his personality, with the judge quoting this term in his judgment.
The Daily Wire and Facebook were contacted for comment in response to this article and had not responded at the time of publication. After VICE World News contacted the Daily Wire an editor’s note was added to “The Attempted Character Assassination of Johnny Depp”, stating “A previous version of this article incorrectly stated Depp was able to disprove 12 of the 14 claims against him. It has been corrected to note he was not able to disprove 12 of the claims.”
The Daily Wire spent an estimated $20,000 to $25,000 on the advert promoting this article – about half of its total spending on ads about the trial.
The ad was promoted on the Facebook page of right-wing commentator Owens, who has 5.4 million Facebook followers and is the former communications director of conservative non-profit Turning Point USA. Owens wrote, “I hope Johnny Depp bankrupts Amber Heard with his lawsuit. It has been absolutely ridiculous to see what that woman has been allowed to do because she flew under the radar of the MeToo movement. Amber Heard is the perfect example of what I refer to as ‘toxic femininity’.” The ad got three million impressions on Facebook and Instagram.
The Daily Wire spent between $10,700 and $15,799 promoting another article that gives a partial account of the trial. “The 14 Most Shocking Revelations In The Johnny Depp, Amber Heard Defamation Trial” is linked to by Owens’s page along with a post describing herself as “squarely team Depp,” while another ad from the Daily Wire’s own page to the story calls the trial as “must-see TV.”
The article repeatedly reports Depp’s claims while barely mentioning Heard’s, with 11 of the 14 “revelations” framed in favor of Depp. It leads with the allegation made by Depp that Heard defected in their bed after a fight; a claim which resulted in hackers changing the actor’s name on IMDB to “Amber Turd”. The story does not reference Heard’s counterclaim that the faeces was their dog’s. One of the “revelations” acknowledges that “Depp didn’t completely come across as a victim” in an audio clip where he referenced beating Heard, but emphasizes that Depp denied this and insisted she was the abuser.
At the very bottom of the article, readers are told, “The views expressed in this piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire”.
The Daily Wire has also been promoting videos on Facebook. “Amber Heard is at fault,” Owens said in one such video. “This man [Depp] lost his entire career based on allegations of a shred of evidence,” said Owens, contradicting the judgment of the UK court which ruled that 12 allegations of abuse by Depp towards Heard more likely than did occur. “It is everything that I say is wrong with the MeToo movement. It is emblematic of the idea that women should just magically be believed,” added Owens.
Michael Knowles, another commentator whose video is advertised on Facebook by the Daily Wire under the title “LOL: This is The BEST Moment From The Johnny Depp Vs. Amber Heard Trial” says Heard is “obviously a complete lunatic”, but also blames Depp for not taking “control of his household,” asking “whatever happened to strong men?” The thumbnail image for the video ad shows Knowles laughing and pointing, alongside photos from court of Depp laughing, and Heard looking tearful.
The Daily Wire was founded in 2015 by Shapiro, a political commentator and former editor of Breitbart News, and film director turned commentator Jeremy Boreing. Media Matters, a US watchdog, has accused the Daily Wire of “bigotry and hatred,” spreading climate change denial, misogyny and homophobia.
The Daily Wire is “at the border of news and disinformation,” said Nandini Jammi, co-founder of adtech industry watchdog Check My Ads. The site “will have a handful of stories that are more or less technically accurate, and then the rest of them are indefensible… But they continue to get away with it,” she said. Media Matters, a US watchdog, has described the Daily Wire as “a cesspool of bigotry and hatred” citing examples of racism, sexism and anti-abortion extremism.
Jammi described identifying and weighing in on narratives with high engagement on social media as “a tried and true playbook that all the disinformation websites that pose as conservative websites are using now as part of their business model.”
The ongoing Depp-Heard case in Virginia has been low hanging fruit for such operations.
Heidi Beirich, co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism said the Daily Wire “feeds into” misogynistic sentiments of its readership by attacking Amber Heard. “This particular publication is a very successful conduit of material from the far extremes and mainstreaming it into the conservative circles,” she said.
In recent years, the Daily Wire has often had close to double the engagements on Facebook of any of its competitors. But it has also broken the rules. A 2019 investigation by Popular Information uncovered a network of 14 large Facebook pages that exclusively promote content from the Daily Wire, without their pages revealing their connection to the outlet – appearing to violate Facebook’s rules in the process. The Daily Wire and Facebook did not respond when asked if the Daily Wire’s actions violated Facebook’s terms of service.
Matt Rivitz, co-founder of social media activism campaign group Sleeping Giants, said Facebook’s business model was “tearing us apart as a society.” “The louder and more obnoxious and more conspiratorial content is, the more engagement it’s going to get,” which in turn increases cash flow from the advertising they get from the clicks, he said.
Sleeping Giants was launched in reaction to the hateful content found on Breitbart News in 2016. Disavowed even by other Conservative outlets for its white nationalist content, Breitbart News (with Steve Bannon at the helm) threw its weight behind Donald Trump and his style of politics during the 2016 US Presidential Election campaign. Its headlines have included “Donald Trump’s Criticisms of Mass Mexican Immigration Barely Scratch the Surface” and “Why White People Seek Black Privilege.”
According to Jammi of Check My Ads, social media users are in a “symbiotic relationship” with outlets like the Daily Wire, which benefit financially from users peddling controversial content. Social media users provide “relevancy to a narrative that is very lucrative” for sites like the Daily Wire which are motivated to publish more content around it. This in turn gives social media users a sense of legitimacy to continue posting these narratives on platforms like Facebook and Twitter.
Rivitz said the only way to change this pattern is for social media companies like Facebook to stop rewarding engagement over quality and facts. “But right now they’re not doing that as their job.”
“The ultimate outcome of this is the demonisation of women,” said Beirich of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism reflecting on the Depp and Heard case and how online activity can directly translate into violence against women and misogynistic terrorism. “Women face a completely different online milieu and offline milieu than men do.”
This story was published in collaboration with media non-profit the Citizens.