For Andy Signore, the Johnny Depp and Amber Heard defamation trial was a gold mine.
Starting in April and spanning just a few months, Signore, 43, more than doubled the following of his YouTube channel, where he comments on news and pop culture. He has made more than 300 videos about the trial and its participants, bringing in millions of views and thousands of dollars in contributions from fans.
It’s a particularly impressive run considering that not long ago the YouTube-focused company Signore founded, Screen Junkies, said it had fired him, citing a variety of sexual misconduct allegations. Signore has denied the allegations.
But the reputational hit also set the stage for his comeback.
Signore has capitalized on the allegations against him, emerging as one of many popular creators on YouTube making news-focused content filtered through a culture war lens. It has become a lucrative endeavor thanks to a shift in how creators make money on YouTube, where donations now flow from an audience skeptical of the #MeToo movement.
Signore’s new channel, “Popcorned Planet,” now has more than 675,000 subscribers who watch his videos and livestreams about “daily news” and “pop culture justice.” Signore covers what he characterizes as the injustice of the #MeToo movement and the criticism he and other men who have been accused of various forms of sexual misconduct have faced in the past five years. It’s a shift that other creators have made, as well, capitalizing on the broader pushback against social justice movements. Some of Signore’s newer content takes aim at the people he said contributed to the allegations against him and their aftermath.
Signore has also cultivated a fan base that includes people who identify as survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence who don’t believe Heard’s allegations against Depp — some of them have donated to Signore, noting their histories of having been abused in comments.
But Signore’s recent success has been difficult for some of the people who worked with him at Screen Junkies or who have appeared on YouTube with him and see him as profiting off his own alleged misbehavior.
“He makes money off victims and says he is one,” said Rei, who has appeared in livestreams on YouTube with Signore and who asked that her last name be withheld to protect her privacy. “People blindly believe him.”
On Nov. 13, Rei hosted a livestream on her channel that included a new accusation — that Signore sent an unsolicited nude video of himself masturbating to a woman in November 2021.
In response to a series of emailed questions, Signore said NBC News was “sensationalizing a private relationship between consenting adults.” He didn’t provide specific responses to other questions about his YouTube operations.
Signore’s evolution reflects an ongoing pushback against the #MeToo movement, as well as the shifting economics on YouTube, which combined with the attention around the Depp-Heard trial to elevate Signore and other creators to new heights. A Pew Research Center study last year found that people ages 18 to 49 were far more likely to say they regularly consumed news through social media than people ages 50 and up, with YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok all among the most popular platforms.
On those platforms, a new crop of social media commentators like Signore has emerged, often putting particular spins or slants on the topics they choose to cover. And those topics often tend to skew toward culture war issues, particularly when they feature major celebrities, while echoing a growing distrust of mainstream media.
“There’s this weird kind of inversion that has been happening where individual people seem more trustworthy than the ‘system,’” said Emily Dreyfuss, a senior editor and fellow on the Technology and Social Change Project at Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center.
The Depp-Heard trial proved a pivotal point for those creators. Alongside Signore, many others, including creators with legal backgrounds who provided legal commentary, got levels of attention they hadn’t seen before on their YouTube channels.
Matt Jarbo, a full-time YouTube creator, said the origins of Signore’s and similar creators’ new style of content traces to around 2017 and the so-called YouTube “Adpocalypse.” In response to advertisers’ concerns about ads appearing on racist and antisemitic videos, YouTube gave advertisers more tools to limit which creators could make money from their ads, including allowing advertisers to opt out of ads on content about “tragedy and conflict” or “sensitive social issues.” The restructuring of YouTube’s advertiser tools reined in revenue for many small creators, including those whose content wasn’t racist or antisemitic in the first place.
At around the same time, YouTube introduced Super Chats, a tipping option within the platform’s chat rooms for viewers to pay creators directly during livestreams. That pushed Jarbo and other creators in a new direction, appealing directly to already polarized audiences for tips, he said.
“That made everybody go: ‘How can I become more hyperbolic when I stream? How can I make more money that way?’” Jarbo said. “It’s been a nightmare ever since.”
Jarbo said he and other creators pivoted to reactionary content that fell into an “anti-SJW,” or anti-“social justice warrior,” category. Jarbo said he has reflected on and now regrets some of the content he created.
The same year, Screen Junkies, the viral YouTube media company Signore created, said that it had fired him, citing “egregious and intolerable” behavior after multiple people came forward on social media claiming that Signore made unwanted romantic and sexual advances toward them. Some people accused Signore of messaging them as fans, then asking them for sexy photos or to meet up in person.
A person who accused Signore of sexual harassment said they were working unpaid for Signore when he told them he had masturbated to their photos and asked whether he could masturbate to them in person. The accuser identifies as gender non-binary and uses they and them pronouns.
A woman who accused him of sexual misconduct said he tried to force her to use sex toys with him during sex, took photos of her without her consent and offered her a position at Screen Junkies in exchange for sexual favors. After he was fired, Signore acknowledged that he had “flirted with fans” and cheated on his ex-wife, but he denied other allegations, including the allegation of sexual harassment and the allegation of sexual misconduct.
It was, at the time, a precipitous fall for a person who had found success during an early and lucrative era of YouTube. In 2007, Signore accepted a Golden Popcorn statue for best movie spoof onstage at the MTV Movie Awards. In 2016, he worked with Ryan Reynolds on a “Deadpool” parody for “Honest Trailers,” the flagship series of Screen Junkies. Weeks before the company said he was fired, CNBC reported that Signore had brought in millions of dollars by lovingly poking fun at Hollywood.
Jarbo said he and Signore met around late 2018 through a mutual friend in an informal community of creators who have all faced backlash. Jarbo, who said some of his own controversies stem from his involvement in Gamergate — a historic harassment campaign against women online — said Signore started “meeting other canceled people” as he rebuilt his YouTube career.
“He was doing a rebound press tour, saying, ‘I didn’t assault this woman, here’s the proof of that,’” Jarbo said. The evidence Signore presented in a YouTube video was a series of previously unpublished communications he alleged were between him and his sexual misconduct accuser that implied a consensual sexual relationship had taken place. The woman who had accused him responded at the time with a statement that her allegations still stand. She didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Signore returned to YouTube in 2018 on his personal channel, “Popcorned Planet,” and his content started out positive and film-focused, like setting up screenings at movie theaters in Tampa, Florida, to interview audience members. But the videos got fewer than 10,000 views.
He quickly pivoted, pushing back against mainstream media, “cancel culture” and some #MeToo accusers. He cited examples of progressive criticism aimed at popular celebrities and franchises, and he repeatedly took aim at some celebrity accusers and news outlets like BuzzFeed News.
Signore also tapped into the trend of providing minute-by-minute commentary about major pop culture and true crime news stories, often making dozens of videos on particular topics. One was the disappearance of Gabby Petito, who was found dead last year after weeks of searching. Signore made more than 80 videos about Petito in just two months.
“He dove into the Petito thing until it was, like, overkill,” Jarbo said. “Anything he can latch onto, he’s boosted his account now.”
The videos, in which Signore largely focused on news coverage of Petito’s presumed killer, Brian Laundrie, and his family, brought in hundreds of thousands of views and paved the way for what was to come with his nonstop coverage of the Depp-Heard trial.
The same year Signore met Jarbo and began making videos challenging the allegations against him, the backlash against Heard started to build and coalesce into a social media movement seeking “justice for Johnny.” Depp accused Heard, who wrote a 2018 op-ed in The Washington Post about becoming a public figure representing domestic abuse during #MeToo, of lying about having experienced abuse to harm Depp’s reputation. In the trial, which concluded this year, a Virginia jury sided with Depp, awarding him $15 million in damages. The jury also awarded Heard $2 million in her countersuit.
(In May, this reporter interviewed Signore about his coverage of Depp and Heard for a potential NBC News story, which ended up not being published. Signore recorded the interview and released segments of it in July in a YouTube video criticizing NBC News’ coverage of the trial.)
Like Petito’s disappearance, the celebrity trial was feverishly covered by many YouTubers, including Signore, who said in May that the case was “incredibly relatable” to him because of the allegations made against him in 2017. Covering Heard as a villain earned Signore his most views on his new channel since Screen Junkies said it had fired him.
Signore made over 100 videos about Depp and Heard before the trial started, and he has made more than 200 about it since. Signore’s most-viewed video about the trial, at over 6 million views, distills the testimony of Depp’s bodyguard, which was largely in favor of Depp, from nearly an hour to 15 minutes of clips. In between clips from the trial, Signore comments that he believes the testimony is true and reflects strongly on Depp’s case. He dismisses Heard’s case throughout.
But the millions of views may not have been as lucrative as the donations many creators brought in. Business Insider reported that the top three Super Chat earners on YouTube during the trial were creators who exclusively streamed it. They all made over $100,000 just from tips.
“It’s always misinformation across the board, and they all pull from the same playbook,” Jarbo said. “If you can tap into that emotional bit with your audience, you will easily be able to manipulate them.”
Signore makes money directly from his audience through Super Chats, often in donations sent with messages from viewers who say they appreciate his take on news events, some of which he discusses in relation to his past.
“There’s no due process,” Signore said in the May video comparing himself to Depp and one of his accusers to Heard. “Every media outlet wanted to jump on it and destroy lives.”
The messages have resonated. On his “My Own Amber Heard” video, a $49.99 donation included a message saying: “I’ve been a victim of [domestic violence] and what AH is doing is wrong. False accusations make it harder for real victims. I’m glad you came forward to defend yourself.”
Signore also encourages his fans to pay him on Cash App and PayPal, where he receives the full value of their transactions (YouTube takes a cut of Super Chat donations), and he has public Amazon wish lists where fans can buy him a standing desk or an action figure or purchase toys and books for his children. In July, Signore raised more than $4,000 from his fans on GoFundMe to build a new studio with 4K cameras for better video quality.
Signore frequently makes videos mentioning his former co-workers and even their partners, which has resulted in his fans’ harassing them, they said. Rei, along with two other former collaborators who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, said Signore has used his platform to harass them and others.
Last month, Rei hosted another former collaborator of Signore’s, Brittany Truskosky, on her YouTube channel. Truskosky, 38, a former unpaid moderator of Signore’s YouTube channel, made new allegations against him, saying he sent her unsolicited nude pictures and videos of himself, including a video of him masturbating.
“He would say things like ‘I shouldn’t ever tell,’” Truskosky said in an interview.
“He’s very pushy and persistent,” she said. “I thought he was being very manipulative, but at the same time I was afraid to go against him.”
Truskosky provided a screenshot to NBC News of a message she sent Signore on Nov. 8, 2021, that said “I think we should keep it platonic.” Truskosky said that a few weeks later, around Nov. 28, 2021, Signore sent her a video of him masturbating as he was saying her name.
In a response to the new claims, Signore said in a video on his channel that Rei had shared “revenge porn” by displaying part of the video during her stream and that she was breaking the law. He didn’t deny Truskosky’s allegations, but he suggested the video could be a “deep fake,” which refers to computer-generated or otherwise edited videos that are meant to look real.
Rei said the size of Signore’s platform can make it hard for people to speak out.
“He’s a bigger content creator,” Rei said. “Not everyone is equipped to deal with drama. Not everyone is equipped to deal with the trolls. It’s a little intimidating trying to combat a bigger platform.”
Since Signore came forward, fans and collaborators have called Truskosky names like “homewrecker” and “skank” in videos and tweets viewed by NBC News.
Signore’s personal history is intimately tied to his content, said Dreyfuss, of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center.
“These influencers who see themselves as outsiders and whose audiences see them as outsiders, often their outsider status is in direct reaction to something in the mainstream that they feel either threatened them personally or threatened their identity,” she said.
Dreyfuss cited falling trust in institutions — including the police, the medical community and mainstream media — as the driving force pushing audiences toward creators like Signore. That increasingly includes liberal or left-leaning audiences.
“People are going to rely on these individuals more and more to give them information,” she said. “Johnny Depp is exactly the kind of icon where people can give him support without it feeling political.”
Early last month, Signore met Depp backstage at one of Depp’s concerts. Signore recorded the encounter for his channel, including his conversation with Depp, who said he “learned a lot” from Signore’s coverage of him.
“It was the culmination of so many things in my life,” Signore says in his video about meeting Depp. “I know so many of you were inspired by fighting for him, fighting against the media.”
The end of Signore’s video features a clip of Depp with his arm slung around Signore’s shoulders. Depp smiles and kisses in the direction of the camera, then plants a kiss on Signore’s cheek.