• Depp vs Heard gripped the world's attention, but what do the memes, clips and gifs say about the mob mentality of the internet?

  • Therapist Sue Cowan-Jenssen explores how shaming others might in fact make us even harder on ourselves too

The Amber Heard v Jonny Depp libel case gripped the world in an extraordinary way. TikTok and YouTube video clips of the trial were seen by millions of viewers. In the online world, Amber Heard was crucified. She put her head above the parapet and was annihilated. 

How does this affect us ordinary people you might ask? Well, I think it does. We no longer go to public hangings or executions but, bluntly, I think they were at least more honest. You saw the brutal consequences which was the ending of a life. When someone is vilified in the media, you don’t see the consequences, you don’t see the pain. Internet cruelty is a potential for anyone who has an internet profile. That means nearly all of us. Online bullying has caused people, usually young, to die by suicide.

At least two of my clients this week discussed the case and feared for Amber Heard. It is said that people, and it is normally women, will be much less willing to confront abuse, especially if the abuser is powerful. I think the consequences are even more widespread. Most of us do not have to go to court to defend ourselves but the message taken when you see the level of vitriol that can occur, is that stepping out of line can be dangerous. 

The power of vitriol and gossip is not new to our age. Plutarch, the Greek philosopher, wrote of ‘envy’ and ‘malignancy’. ‘Envy’ is pain at another’s good fortune and ‘malignancy’ is joy at another’s sorrow. I think what was being displayed on the internet was both.

Jonny Depp and Amber Heard were a golden couple. They were very famous in a world that idealises fame. That fame brought them power, choices, and an enviable lifestyle. What was being witnessed in the court room was their disintegration, shame and fall from grace. The news coverage was not kind. Clips of Amber Heard’s distress went viral. If we are encouraged to make harsh judgements and indulge our malicious pleasure at the downfall of others, what effect does it have on us?

I often see people in my consulting rooms who feel tortured by an indefinable sense of badness or shame, which they find hard to identify. They feel underserving of good fortune and often inhabit internal worlds that are unkind and merciless. They are worried if they are not ‘perfect’, be it at work or in their relationships. I don’t believe that the press or social media creates the pathology but if the prevailing culture is persecutory, judgmental and without compassion it becomes more difficult to sustain robust mental health and a positive sense of self. If we enjoy the exposure of others too excessively, it is possible we are feeding our own persecutory inner world and losing touch with a more compassionate perspective.

Sue Cowan-Jenssen is a verified Welldoing therapist in London and online

Further reading

Why we feel shame and how to let it go

The psychology of social media malice

Dear Therapist..."I'm obsessed with Depp vs Heard"

What's the downside of empathy?

How being bullied at work changed my life