What the internet's obsession with Amber Heard's body language says

Self-professed online experts are convinced physical movement justifies total villainisation.

by Daisy Schofield
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24 May 2022, 1:10pm

Screenshot taken from court livestream

Before the Depp v. Heard case began, Cam Williams was typically churning out TikToks about narcissistic abuse and defending Joe Rogan. Now, much of the content posted by the podcast host is about the internet’s favourite topic: the Johnny Depp-Amber Heard trial, and specifically, Amber Heard’s physical behaviour while testifying. “When people are saying something they need you to believe but they don’t think you’re buying it, they turn into this slouch position,” he says in one of his videos. “And she keeps doing that, [when she says] ‘he hit me’.”

It’s not just Cam: the FYP is obsessed with the trial. Another TikTok user, @probablycheeky, has been using his platform in a similar way. He points to the fact that Heard is — he believes — lying because she can be seen shaking her head as she says “he slaps me one more time, hard”. The video, which has been viewed almost 350,000 times, has been met with unanimous praise in the comments, from “I studied criminal psychology and this is a fact” to  “Frankly if he did… good”.

As the Depp v. Heard case – a defamation dispute over allegations of domestic abuse and sexual violence between the pair – unfolds, videos like these, dissecting body language in the court case, have been amassing millions of views. They focus overwhelmingly on Heard, citing examples of her demeanour, posture, tics, and gestures as evidence of her deception.

The videos form part of a wider movement to discredit Heard that has flooded the internet since the trial began. Diehard Johnny Depp supporters have rallied around the actor under the hashtag #justiceforjohnny, spreading misinformation and turning accounts of abuse into an endless stream of memes ridiculing Heard. Meanwhile Depp’s lawyer, Camille Vasquez, has developed her own fan base with bizarre videos fantasising about her ‘secret relationship’ with the actor circulating on TikTok.

Men’s right activists, who see destroying Heard as the key to silencing all women who speak out about domestic abuse, have made it their mission to amplify these videos. Pro-Depp content has become so widespread, that even corporate accounts have joined in on mocking and villanising Heard.

As with the deluge of trial memes, body language analysis decontexualises and obscures the truth. But instead of using jokes, it peddles pseudoscience to present her guilt as an ​​incontrovertible fact. And it’s not something confined to certain corners of the internet, with famous body language ‘experts’ appearing on daytime talk shows to accuse Heard of “a lot of deception”  and “crocodile tears”.

Body language analysis has long been a crass form of entertainment in the tabloid press. But the past few years have seen an explosion in content examining non-verbal communication on YouTube and other platforms, thanks in part to the huge appetite for true crime. Much of this analysis hinges on the belief that it’s possible to detect a liar. Sigmund Freud, one of the earliest proponents of body language analysis, stressed the importance of non-verbal signals in spotting deception when he wrote: “If his lips are silent, he chatters with his finger tips; betrayal oozes out of him at every pore.”

Gregory Hartley is a self-described body language expert who has spent thus far over ten hours on camera analysing Depp v. Heard. He is part of The Behavior Panel – a YouTube channel where “the world’s leading behavior experts weigh in” on high-profile cases to their 570,000 subscribers. The channel’s videos about this particular trial are among their most popular, boasting millions of views on YouTube. In these videos, the all-male panel picks apart Heard’s speech pattern and movements – from a head tilt to gaze aversion – to undermine elements of her testimony.

“I can’t tell you if she’s lying about everything,” Gregory Hartley says. “What I can tell you is that she’s masking her real person and trying really hard.” He condemns using non-verbal communication as concrete evidence (“anyone who takes an absolutist approach by saying: ‘she scratched her nose so she must be lying’ is selling snake oil,” he says). But this rarely seems to be the conclusion arrived at by the people seeking out his content. “She's so pathetic when she's trying to fabricate” writes one user in the video’s comment, “Amber is a total mental case liar!!!!” reads another. Another simply reads: “Liar liar liar”.

Where does the obsession with spotting liars come from? “People don’t like to accept the notion that people can lie to you,” says psychologist Maria Hartwig, a deception researcher. “It's part of a belief in a just world; that people get what they deserve and that bad things happen to bad people.” But wanting something to be true does not make it so. “Most body language is totally useless from a scientific point of view. There's not only no science to back it up, but there's tremendous body of science that shows that you cannot detect deception by body language.”

Maria Hartwig points out that when people are looking for indications that someone might be lying, they are typically looking for signs of anxiety. “Both the liar and the truth teller who are concerned about their credibility may experience anxiety… being thought of as potentially a liar is very aversive,” she says. “Relying on anxiety cues is going to end up misclassifying a lot of innocent people as guilty, because innocent people experience anxiety too.”

While these videos rely on certain tropes associated with lying, the reality is that the signs of deception are inconsistent and vary wildly. “Most people can detect if someone is genuinely happy or upset, but deception in itself isn't a behaviour,” says Dr Samantha Mann, another expert in deception. “You might show different behaviours when you're lying. It completely depends on the person and the situation.”

Analysis of non-verbal signals is inadmissible in court, but this hasn’t stopped it seeping into the legal system. “It’s still embedded in jury instructions to pay attention to demeanour,” Hartwig says. This is despite the fact that “science shows that if you don't see a person and you only hear them, you’re actually better at detecting [if someone is lying or not].”

The explosion of content villainising Heard might be surreal, but it also poses a serious threat. It seeks to rollback years of progress made in the discussion of and handling of domestic abuse, while also laying the groundwork for a culture in which the harassment and shaming of women who publicly accuse their partners of abuse is normalised. Body language may present itself as objective and therefore without motive, but in reality, it is part of the same vindictive campaign to tear down not just Heard, but all female accusers.