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Report finds online campaign of "widespread targeted harassment" against supporters of Amber Heard

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It's been more than a month and a half since the civil defamation trial between celebrity actors Amber Heard and Johnny Depp was decided, but Ella Dawson's Twitter notifications haven't stopped.

"I'm still getting people tweeting at me, calling me weird heinous stuff. And it's been weeks and weeks. That's very strange," said Dawson, a digital strategist and writer.

Dawson was one of many Heard supporters on the receiving end of an organized campaign of "widespread targeted harassment," according to a report published Monday by the research firm Bot Sentinel. The firm analyzed more than 14,000 tweets that included at least one of four viral anti-Heard hashtags seeking to characterize Heard as a liar or an abuser, and found that nearly 1 in 4 accounts tied to the tweets, 24.4%, were created in the last seven months. Nearly 1 in 5 accounts to tweet the hashtags "were 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 is repeatedly copying, pasting and tweeting content —  to both amplify anti-Heard messaging and vilify her supporters. 

One method described in the report as intended "to deceive Twitter's algorithms" involved accounts spamming hashtags with slight misspellings, for instance 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 pretty shocked by how quickly the tweets that I wrote went viral and the amount of hatred I got in response," Dawson said. "It was very bizarre to see the organized nastiness."

The organized nature of the attacks were apparent to Eve Barlow, a friend and vocal supporter of Heard, who said Bot Sentinel's findings were not surprising.

"It corroborates a lot of what we know and have been saying," said Barlow, a journalist. "Anyone who stands for Amber in front of the firing line, you're not even low-hanging fruit, you're an easy target."

Depp and Heard's two-month defamation trial brought to live television what had been a yearslong, acrimonious dispute between the formerly married stars. They accused each other of defamation, and each alleged the other committed physical and emotional abuse as well as used drugs. A Virginia jury that heard Depp's defamation claim against Heard, and her counterclaim against him, in June awarded $15 million in damages to Depp 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, certain Twitter accounts appeared to be coordinating their efforts to drown out Heard's supporters, according to Bot Sentinel founder Christopher Bouzy. He emphasized in an interview with CBS News that the accounts his firm found to be amplifying anti-Heard messaging, and harassing her supporters, appeared to be operated by real people, not bots — autonomous accounts sometimes used to parrot humans. 

"It does not necessarily mean a bunch of folks in a small room, some place in St. Petersburg that are working together," Bouzy said, referring to infamous "troll farms" thought 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 firm found that Heard supporters "were attacked relentlessly," often with "vulgar and threatening language." It wrote in the report that, "offensive tweets, misogyny, doxxing, and death threats were rampant" in tweets targeting Heard supporters. The report includes a disclaimer that the firm was previously hired by Heard's legal team, in 2020, to analyze traffic related to Heard and Depp. However, Bouzy said the research published Monday was undertaken independently, after observing what appeared to be harassment and platform manipulation.

Before releasing the report, the company sent to Twitter a list of hundreds of accounts that Bot Sentinel determined "violated multiple rules and policies of the platform, including but not limited to violent threats, abuse/harassment, hateful conduct, private information, and platform manipulation and spam." 

The company wrote in its report that, "It's our opinion Twitter didn't do enough to mitigate the platform manipulation and did very little to stop the abuse and targeted harassment. Twitter essentially left the women to fend for themselves with little to no support from the platform."

Twitter has not responded to requests for comment from CBS News.

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

Attacks against Barlow included a tweet saying she would "look good" crucified. Barlow said she believes the attacks "are intended to intimidate and isolate the victim." 

"We have to look at the statistics from Christopher in the context of what it means offline, out in the real world, as well as online. We can't pull the wool over our eyes as to the amount of influence the online conversation has on people," Barlow said.

Her sentiment was echoed by urban planner Lindsey Boylan, who was also targeted by tweets highlighted in the report. Boylan said her support of Heard had little to do with the "Aquaman" actress's films.

"My interest, and why I got engaged in speaking out, is that the entire trial process was made into a circus by the targeted harassment of anyone who spoke up on her behalf and really beat 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 governor of New York of sexual harassment. 

"I think people need to understand how harmful this 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 for people's first amendment rights to speak up," Boylan said.

For Dawson, that's meant being "bombarded by people every day for weeks on end saying that Amber Heard is a liar and women lie. And I am an abuse apologist who must be lying.

"That absolutely takes a toll," Dawson said. 

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