When the verdict was handed down in the Johnny Depp-Amber Heard trial on Wednesday afternoon, thousands of influential people online tried to respond. Twitch streamers respond to real-time news, and YouTube posts analytics videos. Instagram Meme account jokes and celebrates Depp’s win. TikTokers shake up the high points of the decision. Videos and memes are just the latest waves of content about the process that has largely dominated the internet over the past two months.
The study offers a glimpse into a potential future media ecosystem where content creators act as the people delivering messages to a growing number of viewers – and in turn identifying online stories about major events. These content creators can also gain huge personal gains in the process. In this new landscape, every major news event becomes an opportunity to gain followers, money and influence. And the Depp-Hurd trial shows how a creator-led news ecosystem can influence public opinion based on platform incentives.
Nearly every major news event in the past year has spawned a new generation of online influencers. As the coronavirus begins to spread deadly across the country, people turn to mainstream health-focused influencers to understand it and are often misinformed that is dangerous. When Russia invaded Ukraine, the “War Pages” multiplied, with its makers making thousands from selling merchandise and posting OnlyFans ads. And as a wave of anti-LGBTQ legislation has developed in recent months, popular LGBTQ streamers and TikToker have garnered a lot of attention.
When the Dep Hurd trial started gaining popularity online in April, netizens around the world saw new ways to attract attention and monetize it. Christopher Orek, a 20-year-old content creator based in Los Angeles, has posted a dozen videos of the process across multiple pages to his more than 1.4 million Instagram followers. “Personally, I’ve made money from it as well as a representation of how well the videos perform,” he said.
“You can go from middle school to high school, and if you get in early, it can be life changing,” Orec says. “You can use the views, likes and shares you get from it to generate revenue and grow your account and make more money from meeting more people and connecting to the internet.”
According to Business Insider, creator Alite Mazeika earns $5,000 in one week by directing content on his YouTube channel to continuously reflect and analyze samples. ThatUmbrellaGuy, an anonymous YouTuber whose entire channel is dedicated to pro-dep content, made as much as $80,000 last month, according to Social Blade. (Mazeika and ThatUmbrellaGuy did not respond to requests for comment.) Orec said he made more than $5,400 in bonuses from Instagram Reels last month.
When great creators see relatively unknown attention, many turn their attention entirely to the process. Makeup artists, meme accounts, comedians, lifestyle influencers, K-pop fans, film critics, real crime podcasters, real estate influencers—suddenly, the Depp trial becomes the focus of their attention.
Content created by influential people on social media is largely pro-dork bias, with economic bias playing a large role. “Johnny’s content performs so much better,” said Rowan Winch, a 17-year-old content creator. “If people post stuff trying to protect Amber Heard, they’re going to lose followers. A lot of great content creators might not even care about it – they only care about the views they get.
Depp’s team itself has realized this phenomenon and is trying to take advantage of it. Last month, Adam Waldman, who represented Depp against Hurd’s 2016 harassment allegations, testified that he “sneaked” into direct messages from key influencers to provide information about the case and promote the idea that Depp was innocent. He said he had numerous phone calls with some sympathetic YouTubers and content creators, whom he called “internet journalists.” “I communicate with internet journalists the same way I communicate with the mainstream media: I’ll let them know,” he said.
As traditional news outlets prioritize stories like the expired Supreme Court Opinion draft on abortion, the war in Ukraine, and the mass shootings in Buffalo and Texas, this leaves room for online coverage to set the tone for the Dep Hurd trial. “The old media took it seriously when they covered these things,” said Aaron Salzman, a strategist who works with NFT content creators and artists. “Content creators can rely on internet culture. They can be stupid, impolite and disrespectful. It looks a lot more authentic to a lot of people, and I think it really resonates.”
But while people who consume their news from content creators often believe they are more reliable than mainstream media, “content creators are not bound by editorial standards or journalistic standards,” tweeted Kat Tenbard, a reporter for NBC News. “In fact, they are encouraged to crack it, get into the story, and make money.” #MeToo.
As more and more people turn to online content creators for information, misinformation is growing rapidly, and the trial can provide guidance for anyone who wants to use the content creator economy to their own advantage. Joe Federer, author of The Hidden Psychology of Social Networking, says “it’s easy to see how manipulating TikTok’s algorithms or getting the right information for the right influencers leads to real misunderstandings about important issues.” There is a big difference between breaking down a story and articulating an informed point of view about it and pursuing a topical issue. ”
The popularity of online trials only encourages influential people to focus more on breaking news and compete more directly with traditional news organizations for coverage.
As of Thursday morning, less than 24 hours after the verdict, many creators were already looking for the next big story. Marlon McLeod, 20, a content creator who runs a large Instagram account with 3 million followers dedicated to posting videos of attractive men, says he plans to focus his page on more news. A video he recently released about the process has been viewed more than 34 million times.
“I want to cover more news and major events around the world,” he said. “Before [the trial], my account was to post videos of random men, but as my account grew, I wanted to dig deeper and cover the event. Something like a news agency.”