Report reveals online campaign of ‘widespread targeted harassment’ against supporters of Amber Heard

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It has been more than a month and a half since the civil defamation lawsuit between famous actors Amber Heard and Johnny Depp has been decided, but Ella Dawson’s Twitter notifications haven’t stopped.

“I always get people tweeting at me, calling me weird, hateful stuff. And it’s been weeks and weeks. It’s very weird,” said Dawson, digital strategist and writer.

Dawson was one of several Heard supporters who fell victim to an organized campaign of “widespread targeted harassment,” according to a report released Monday by research firm Bot Sentinel. The company analyzed more than 14,000 tweets that included at least one of four viral anti-Heard hashtags seeking to characterize Heard as either a liar or an abuser, and found that nearly one in four accounts linked to the tweets, 24, 4%, was created within the last seven months. Nearly one in five accounts to tweet the hashtags “was dedicated to spamming”, according to the report.

Bot Sentinel found that “toxic troll” accounts used a variety of methods – from hashtag spamming to “copypasta”, which repeatedly copies, pastes and tweets content – to both amplify anti-Heard messages and vilify his supporters.

One method described in the report as intended to “trick Twitter’s algorithms” involved accounts spamming hashtags with slight misspellings, such as replacing the letter “I” with the letter “L”.

“The intentional misspelling demonstrates a calculated effort to manipulate hashtag trends,” Bot Sentinel wrote in its report.

Dawson, who had not seen the report when she was interviewed, was struck by the voracity of Depp’s online supporters.

“I was quite shocked at how quickly the tweets I wrote went viral and the amount of hate I received in response,” Dawson said. “It was very weird to see the organized wickedness.”

The organized nature of the attacks was evident to Eve Barlow, a friend and strong supporter of Heard, who said the Bot Sentinel findings were not surprising.

“It corroborates a lot of what we know and have said,” said Barlow, reporter. “Anyone representing Amber in front of the firing line, you’re not even a low hanging fruit, you’re an easy target.”

Depp and Heard two-month libel trial brought to live television what had been a years-long acrimonious row between the once-married stars. They accused each other of defamation, and each alleged that the other had committed physical and psychological violence as well as used drugs. A Virginia jury that heard Depp’s libel suit against Heard and his counterclaim against him, in June awarded Depp $15 million in damages and $2 million in damages to Heard. The $15 million judgment was later reduced to $10.35 million due to Virginia’s cap on punitive damages.

Before, during and after the nearly two-month trial, some Twitter accounts appeared to be coordinating their efforts to drown out Heard supporters, according to Bot Sentinel founder Christopher Bouzy. He pointed out in an interview with CBS News that the accounts his company found amplifying anti-Heard messages and harassing his followers appeared to be operated by real people, not bots — standalone accounts sometimes used to parrot humans. .

“It doesn’t necessarily mean a group of people in a small room somewhere in St. Petersburg working together,” Bouzy said, referring to the infamous “troll farms” believed to be based in Russia. “It could just be a group of people who are against Amber Heard, and they decide on another platform – whether it’s Switch or Discord or whatever – ‘we’re going to attack, let’s coordinate together.'”

Bouzy’s cabinet found that Heard supporters “were relentlessly attacked”, often with “vulgar and threatening language”. He wrote in the report that “offensive tweets, misogyny, doxxing and death threats were commonplace” in tweets targeting Heard supporters. The report includes a disclaimer that the firm was previously engaged by Heard’s legal team, in 2020, to analyze traffic related to Heard and Depp. However, Bouzy said the research published on Monday was undertaken independently, after observing what appeared to be harassment and manipulation of the platform.

Prior to publishing the report, the company sent Twitter a list of hundreds of accounts that Bot Sentinel said “violated multiple platform rules and policies, including but not limited to violent threats. , abuse/harassment, hateful behavior, private information and platform manipulation and spam.”

The company wrote in its report, “We are of the view that Twitter has not done enough to mitigate platform manipulation and has done very little to stop targeted abuse and harassment. Twitter has essentially let the women to fend for themselves with little or no support from the platform.”

Twitter did not respond to requests for comment from CBS News.

The report highlighted tweets targeting Barlow, among others, with offensive language. In one particularly egregious case, a photo of a Heard supporter’s deceased daughter was added to a new account, which was then used to target the woman.

Attacks on Barlow included a tweet saying she would “look good” crucified. Barlow said she believed the attacks “were intended to intimidate and isolate the victim.”

“We need to look at Christopher’s stats in the context of what that means offline, in the real world, as well as online. We can’t hide our face about how much influence online conversation has on people,” Barlow said.

His sentiment was echoed by city planner Lindsey Boylan, who was also targeted by tweets highlighted in the report. Boylan said her support for Heard had little to do with the “Aquaman” actress’ movies.

“My interest, and why I am committed to speaking out, is that the whole trial process has been turned into a circus by the targeted harassment of anyone who spoke on her behalf and really beat the misogyny against her across the country. said Boylan, a former aide to Andrew Cuomo who was one of 11 women who in 2021 accused the then New York governor of sexual harassment.

“I think people need to understand how harmful it is not just in the context of this case and these individuals, but how harmful it is for any survivor, how harmful it is for women, how harmful it is to the First Amendment right to speak up,” Boylan said.

For Dawson, that means being “bombarded by people every day for weeks saying that Amber Heard is a liar and that women lie. And I’m an abuse apologist who has to lie.

“It absolutely takes a toll,” Dawson said.

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