The trial offered a glimpse into a potential future media ecosystem where content creators serve as the personalities breaking news to an increasing number of viewers — and, in turn, define the online narrative around major events. Those creators can also bring in major personal profits in the process. In this new landscape, every big news event becomes an opportunity to amass followers, money and clout. And the Depp-Heard trial showed how the creator-driven news ecosystem can influence public opinion based on platform incentives.
Nearly every large breaking news event in the past year has birthed a new crop of online influencers. As the coronavirus began its deadly spread across the country, people turned to large health-focused influencers to make sense of it, often falling for dangerous misinformation. When Russia invaded Ukraine, “war pages” proliferated, with their creators earning thousands by selling merchandise and posting OnlyFans ads. And as waves of anti-LGBTQ legislation flourished in recent months, popular LGBTQ streamers and TikTokers received major boosts in attention.
When the Depp-Heard trial began gaining traction online in April, Internet users around the world recognized a fresh opportunity to seize and monetize the attention. Christopher Orec, a 20-year-old content creator in Los Angeles, has posted a dozen videos about the trial to his more than 1.4 million followers on Instagram across several pages. “Personally, what I’ve gained from it is money as well as exposure from how well the videos do,” he said.
You can “go from being a kid in high school and, if you hop on it early, it can basically change your life,” Orec said. “You can use those views and likes and shares that you get from it, to monetize and build your account and make more money from it, meet more people and network.”
The content creator Alyte Mazeika earned $5,000 in one week by pivoting the content on her YouTube channel to nonstop trial coverage and analysis, according to Business Insider. ThatUmbrellaGuy, an anonymous YouTuber whose entire channel is dedicated to pro-Depp content, earned up to $80,000 last month, according to an estimate by social analytics firm Social Blade. (Mazeika and ThatUmbrellaGuy did not respond to requests for comment.) Orec said he earned over $5,400 last month in Instagram Reels bonus payments.
When large creators saw the attention relative unknowns were receiving, many fully pivoted their content to covering the trial. Makeup artists, meme accounts, comedians, lifestyle influencers, K-pop fans, movie reviewers, true-crime podcasters, real estate influencers — suddenly the Depp trial was their primary focus.
Content produced by social media influencers skewed heavily pro-Depp, with economic bias playing a big role. “Johnny content performed a lot better,” said Rowan Winch, a 17-year-old content creator. “When people do post stuff trying to defend Amber Heard, they will lose followers. A lot of major content creators probably don’t even care about it that much — they just care about the views that it gets.”
Depp’s own team recognized the phenomenon at hand and looked to capitalize on it. Last month, Adam Waldman, who represented Depp against Heard’s abuse allegations in 2016, testified that he “slid” into big influencers’ DMs to provide information about the case and promote the notion that Depp was innocent. He said he had numerous phone calls with several sympathetic YouTubers and content creators whom he called “Internet journalists.” “I communicate with the Internet journalists exactly the same way I’d communicate with the mainstream media: I’ll inform them,” he said.
As traditional news outlets prioritized stories such as the leaked Supreme Court draft opinion on abortion, the war in Ukraine, and mass shootings in Buffalo and Texas, it left an opening for online coverage to set the tone with the Depp-Heard trial. “There’s a seriousness that legacy media follows when they cover these things,” said Aaron Saltzman, a strategist who works with content creators and NFT artists. “Content creators can lean into Internet culture. They can be silly and crude and crass. It comes off as way more authentic to a lot of people and I think that really resonates.”
But while people who consume their news from content creators often believe it to be more trustworthy than mainstream media, “creators aren’t beholden to any editorial standards or journalistic norms,” Kat Tenbarge, a reporter at NBC News covering the trial tweeted. “In fact, they’re incentivized to break them, to fit the narrative and make money.” Media and influencers on the political right seized upon the cultural moment to make Depp a cause celebre, using their coverage to turn the trial into a referendum on #MeToo.
As more people turn to online creators for information, misinformation flourishes and the trial could provide a playbook for anyone looking to leverage the creator economy for their own gain. Joe Federer, author of the book “The Hidden Psychology of Social Networks,” said that “it’s easy to see how manipulating a TikTok algorithm, or planting the right information with the right influencers, causes a real misunderstanding of important issues. There’s a huge difference between breaking a story and articulating an informed point of view on it, and following on to a trending topic.”
The popularity of the trial online has only emboldened influencers to lean harder into breaking news and compete more directly with traditional news organizations on coverage.
By Thursday morning, less than 24 hours after the verdict came down, many creators were already in search of 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, said he plans to pivot his page to covering more news. A video he posted recently about the trial got more than 34 million views.
“I do want to cover more news and big things happening in the world,” he said. “Before [the trial], my account was about posting random videos of men, but as my account grows, I want to be diving more into these events reporting on them. Kind of like news outlets.”