the judgment of Johnny Depp contra Amber Heard for defamation is not only occupying the headlines of the pink press, it has also become the most popular content on YouTube, appearing as a recommendation even for users who do not usually watch that type of content.
After two weeks of mutual accusations and devastating revelations, one of the most controversial celebrity legal battles of the last decade has gone on hiatus until May 16. A pause that will serve for the legal teams of both parties to rethink their strategy, perhaps bringing to light more lurid details of their relationship.
If you don’t like this type of content, the good news is that in this Internet age, it’s easy to dodge: not only do we get to choose who we follow, social media algorithms make sure to show us content we like to encourage ‘clicks’ and advertising impressions. Except YouTube, apparently.
If you have entered YouTube in recent weeks, it is very likely that the service has recommended videos of the trial of Johnny Depp and Amber Heard. Even if you have never seen videos related to that topic or with either of the two actors; even if you normally watch completely different videos than those. It does not matter even if you have indicated to YouTube that you do not want to see those videos; the page and the app continue to show them to you. As a consequence, these videos of the trial accumulate millions of visits in just a few hours, because they are appearing in the accounts of all kinds of users.
The videos have nothing special, they are just recordings of the trial with copyright-free music, usually with key moments of the litigation such as statements by one of those involved. Most of the time, they have flashy titles, in which they take part (usually in favor of Depp), criticizing or praising the lawyers and the judge.
Teenagers manipulating YouTube
NBC News has been able to talk to some of the people behind these videos, including a teenager, who calls himself “Jacob” and claims to be only 15 years old. His channel barely had any subscribers, and his content only got hundreds of views; It was then that he decided to make videos of the trial, simply because he saw that the topic was gaining attention on the Internet.
It is a similar story in other cases. The only thing that the creators of these videos seem to have in common is that they were already using YouTube to upload other types of contentsuch as music videos, makeup tutorials, movie reviews, or comedy; overnight, videos of the Depp-Amber trial started uploading, immediately gaining millions of views. However, most are aware that they are just taking advantage of the moment, and plan to re-post the kind of content they did before when the trial is over.
This may have confused YouTube’s algorithms, and it may think that it is recommending videos on topics that interest us and that have suddenly become popular.
Some of these videos have a style very similar to that of the viral tiktok videos, and that is no coincidence; some of the creators had experience on that platform, and the style may have attracted a lot of views regardless of the content it covers. TikTok is also filling up with these types of videos, where they are racking up billions of views. Another aspect to take into account is the association of these videos with the movement #justiceforjohnnydepp (Justice for Johnny Depp) that uses social networks like Twitter and Facebook to distribute content that supports the actor and attacks Amber Heard. The use of related hashtags, and users who share the content on other platforms have been very important to obtain such a number of visits.
YouTube has not made public statements about it, and its code is secret, so we don’t know if its algorithms have been “fooled”, or if they work as the company would like, recommending videos ignoring preferences and user history. This is not the first time that it has recommended controversial videos to users regardless of their tastes; Only in the last two years has Alphabet had to implement changes because of the way in which YouTube encouraged videos with questionable content, first with videos with false information about COVID-19, and then with the US elections and the storming of the Capitol.
It remains to be seen if YouTube will take action against these videos, taking into account that they do not violate its rules, and if the return of the trial will mean the return of these videos to the front pages of billions of users.