Mark Pellegrino is an actor, known for his roles on hit television series such as Lost, Dexter, Supernatural and 13 Reasons Why. Andrew Rossow is an ‘internet attorney’, journalist and media consultant. Mark and Andrew have come together for The Guardian Project, a new reality docuseries described as a “multi-tiered attack on the epidemic problems of public bullying and the spreading of libelous narratives on social media.”
In this Exclusive Interview with Courageous Nerd, Mark and Andrew discuss The Guardian Project, how they came to work together and the damage that creating false narratives can have on an individual.
Welcome, and thank you for taking the time to do this.
Mark Pellegrino (MP): Thanks, man.
Andrew Rossow (AR): Thank you.
How have you both been finding life in the pandemic?
AR: You know, I think there’s both good and bad. From a positive standpoint, it’s provided a lot more discipline in terms of sticking to a schedule or routine, which I’ve always had. It still forces you to really map out your day and ensure you’re staying productive. I never really liked working in an office setting. I’m one that hated when people came up and bantered about… blah blah blah. Then you kind of think, what was I just doing? From that perspective, it’s helped me. I think overall the pandemic has been relatively positive. I feel I’ve done quite a bit, gotten to meet several new people, one of them being Mark. Getting to know each other and coming up with our project. For me, it’s been wonderful, but you look at everyone else and not everybody appreciates or approaches it the same way.
MP: I feel it’s the same mixed bag for me. On the one hand, my income and jobs have been pushed to 2021 for at least the foreseeable future. That’s kind of a bummer. I like having a schedule imposed on me that I function around in. It’s been a challenge for me to keep my own schedule and follow that, but it’s also been a creative boon. I wrote a script, I’m working on the outlines for another script. Met Andrew, we’ve put together this project, putting together a project for the Ayn Rand Institute and helping to produce that. Getting a lot of reading done and a lot of movie watching in. To that degree, I think I’ve been better off. My wife is unfortunately been trapped in Paris since June, so I haven’t had the good social effects of being with somebody. Building up intimacy where you couldn’t before because of traveling or working out of state or something.
You are both involved with The Guardian Project, a new reality docuseries described as a “multi-tiered attack on the epidemic problems of public bullying and the spreading of libelous narratives on social media.”. How did you come work together on this?
MP: Well, I’ve experienced successive ways of online bullying as a ‘checkmark’ in social media. The check isn’t just verification of a celebrity status or being an influencer, it’s also a target for many people. If you’re also a ‘checkmark’ that has an opinion, you can be controversial depending on the zeitgeist of the culture. You invite attacks, not on purpose but by virtue of the fact that you stand out more. The attackers try to cut you down to size and they’re not always very honest when they’re doing it. You may think you’re engaging in a dialogue with somebody to get them to understand your point of view or in an attempt to understand theirs, to bring more clarity to the universe. They’re just out there to hurt you. So, I experienced about three successive waves of what I call ‘hoarding’, where somebody either picks a fight with you and [you] take the bait. Then, you get piled on by a semi-organised troupe of like-minded people.
They isolate and abuse you. Either you quit, or die, it seems to be their goal. I just got sick and tired of it. At one point during the third wave, a group of fans started to defend me. They circled the wagons around me and offered proof that what the hoarders were saying was wrong. One of the leaders of that group of defenders joked to me that she was my bodyguard and from there, the idea of the Guardians was born. Then, Andrew asked me to do a Cameo for his cyberbullying site, CYBERBYTE. Then, he asked me for an interview which I did. The post-interview went longer than the interview and I discovered we had a lot of personal dynamics in common. Same framework of respect of justice and wanting to help victims of these types of assaults. So, The Guardian Project was born out of that.
AR: You know, what I think really helped unite us on top of that was a lot of people don’t understand was that this type of bullying, trolling… this nihilism that we would be capable of mirror that behaviour onto others, right? The idea is, we couldn’t. There are people out there, always, who will try and spin narratives about anyone who is standing up and using their voice. That is really what has unfortunately led to this ‘cancel culture’ that people have become so afraid of speaking out and standing up for what they believe. It’s isolating. Mark and I want to create an atmosphere or a community big or small for people to be able to do that. To also humanise their experiences for those who still don’t believe this is happening, don’t think it’s harmful, don’t believe this should be criminalised. I think we complement each other very well.
As already mentioned, Mark is an actor, and Andrew, you’re from a legal background. How do your respective careers affect your work with The Guardian Project?
MP: I think we combine creative and organisational elements that can really make this project progress. I hope that I enhance his creativity and he definitely enhances my organisational ability. He’s a better editor than I am, so I can write stuff and he can hone it to a nice concise point. In that respect, the message, I think, gets out there better and clearer than if one of us were approaching it singly.
AR: I think you said it perfectly. We complement each other well. There’s a lot that Mark has in his network and experience. We come from very different worlds, different backgrounds where we’re able to bring those into our relationship here to give to the bigger cause. You know, Mark certainly adds to my creativity and I think there’s something we both learn from each other every day.
As we continue to grow, we are learning from each other, we’re bouncing ideas off one another. Saying, you know: “Mark, who’s in your network that could speak on this? Who could be a good resource, and vice versa?” With law and media, my realm, those are resources that not everybody comes across every day. At the same time, looking at Mark as a renowned actor and performer, there are contacts and resources that I wouldn’t come across every day. We both recognise that we know and don’t know makes us even stronger to deliver to the community that we want this to go to.
The Guardian Project operates under a tier system. Could you explain this and how it works for anyone who might be unfamiliar?
MP: Well, I think Andrew and I both hold that there is more or less one dynamic that’s expressed in two ways, which enables people to be so cruel online. It’s generally anonymity. The anonymity of the person making the attacks and the anonymity of the person being attacked, which makes it safe for [the attacker] to disappear into the mob. The person being attacked, they’re an abstraction, they’re a handle. Whatever the attacker decides to substitute for who the real person is. The show is about exposing the people who are attacking and connecting them with their victims. To see what can result from actually seeing the person face to face and confronting the fact that they’re a human being just like you – with hopes, wishes, dreams, and values. You’ve done something extremely consequential in their life.
On another level, I think it’s about organising a support group to help people who have been the victims of this unjust and what should be criminal actions. Counselling, places where they can vent, write and express themselves and to be supported by a community of like-minded folks. Maybe even folks who can help them move on, pick up the pieces and live a productive life again. Then there’s the aspect of legal reform and trying to bring the laws up to date with the communication technology. We don’t think victims have the capacity to stand up for themselves and be supported by the legal system. That serves as a deterrent for people seeking justice and incentive for those wanting to abuse people.
AR: I agree. I think the way our legal system is set up right now for these type of cases is very unfriendly. It’s costly, most people don’t have the financial capability to file a lawsuit. The problem is covering the filing fees, enormous amounts of hearings, discovery, to “Where’s all the proof? Where is this happening?” There’s a lot of cost associated with it which, as Mark said, is a deterrent to people wanting to use the legal system as a support system. So, I think is this aspect where we hope to provide this network of people who can guide, advise, connect. It’s going to be easier up until states start to hone in on these laws, right? Every state has some form of electronic harassment law. It’s a slap on the wrist. What we’re trying to do is get people to understand that cyber-bullying is a crime. Words do kill, words do hurt. This ‘sticks and stones’ framework that we’ve all grown up with needs to go away.
With the quarantined time we’re currently living in and more reliance on social media, how timely do you think The Guardian Project is?
MP: Very, it’s not just the pandemic that’s making people more dependent on social media, it’s also extreme partisanship and tribalism out there in the world. There’s no bridge between the contending tribes. There’s no attempt to bridge the gap between the contending tribes. They’ve each labelled each other as evil. I think learning how to… and I’m learning too, by the way. I used to approach bullies in a very different way than I’m learning to now. Especially with respect to the way aggression expresses itself on social media – you have to deal with that kind of thing differently than with physical aggression.
The atmosphere today, the hyper contention, the conflation of words with violence in many respects, makes real discourse often impossible. I think the Guardians can step into this crazy sort of Civil War that we’re in the midst of and perhaps be a beacon of reason for people who choose to follow it.
AR: There’s a lot of hate going on, you know, Conor. There’s a lot of hate in the US right now. Even as we’re speaking, the election is going on. We all really walk on eggshells online. It doesn’t matter what anybody says, you’re going to offend somebody even if that’s not even your intention, on your mind. Somebody’s going to be offended. Why? Because of very little emotion that can be detected simply by typing words. In the absence of recording a video or doing a live stream, you can’t gauge what the other person is thinking, how they’re presenting it, their demeanor.
So, having a network that Mark has built with the Guardians before I even came along, really sets the framework for: “What happens if you are misunderstood in a tweet, or Facebook post?” You will have people that know you is so many aspects that can clarify and help provide context to those who are willing to receive it.
As mentioned, The Guardian Project deals with is libel and slander – spreading false information about someone, that could damage their reputation. How much of an impact, from what you have seen, does this have on an individual?
MP: There were multiple false narratives circulating around me. They kept circulating irrespective of all the proof that was produced in defiance of false narratives, podcasts and other things that I did. Taking each false narrative on its own merits and completely disproving them. It persisted to the point where a number of enraged fans started a Change.org petition to get me fired from every single job that I have. Now, my fans started to counter the Change.org petition that well outnumbered theirs.
The commentary section in theirs was so mean-spirited and vile that eventually, Change.org dropped their petition. But still, that exists. Somewhere out there in cyberspace, 1400 people wanted me canned from my jobs, because they didn’t feel ‘safe’ around me. If they heard from somebody who heard from somebody… down the chain of telephone lines that is social media, I was ‘this’ kind of person. They didn’t check it out for themselves, just immediately adopted it.
There’s more than just: “They might have a vague notion of who I am”, disagree with what I believe in and have a sense of dislike. There’s also another more insidious element to this social media bullying. There’s groups who band together to get their identities and self esteem from destroying people. Destroying checkmarks, in particular. And so, they gain popularity by gaming this viciousness, by engaging checkmarks and hoping that checkmark engages them back. They get affirmation, caché within their group and feel like they’re doing something meaningful. To them, the destruction of something bigger than them helps to give them power. So, there’s that sick element to this, too. I think that sick element is larger than we’d like to believe.
Mark, you starred on 13 Reasons Why. Cyber-bullying and public slander was a major component of that show. While that story was fictitious, do you think The Guardian Project could have helped a situation like that?
MP: Yeah, I think so. And I think that’s what the community eventually ended up doing, banding around the victims. Helping themselves as they understood that what they say has a tremendous impact on somebody. You’re responsible for that. I don’t want to imply the wrong thing by this… any tool we have including language can be used for ill. So, you have to be very responsible and rational about the way you use any tool. People are not being responsible about the way they use the tool of their own language and the way they use the tool of the Internet – a really great way of connecting people all over the world.
Now, for the first time in history, we can literally access just about any kind of information, yet we’re deliberately using social media to be parochial. Close ourselves off in these little communities and not let any new information influence us.
AR: That’s just it. The Internet, as you said Mark, is a really great tool. Social media isn’t bad, it’s not evil. It’s no different than that old expression with guns – “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” It’s how these tools are being used. When somebody is choosing to weaponise social media, to use it in a way that it was not intended to be used and to exploit it for its ‘flaws’, it’s the open nature of that Internet, the anonymity.
That’s where problems ensue. The platforms need to be held accountable to some extent on their end for the reporting mechanisms that they have, sure. It’s up to users like you and I to hold each other accountable, hold ourselves accountable and understand that coming onto these platforms is a privilege. By doing so, you have to give up certain privacy rights. That includes your name, your identity. You’re entering a world much higger than yourself, a world that I think all of us are still trying to understand. Congress is still trying to understand it by having these hearings. It’s about holding users accountable and we do so by educating and humanising this. By exposing this type of behaviour, that’s the right pathway to do it.
You also played Lucifer, a major antagonist on Supernatural. Speaking to your own experiences, has playing a villain affected how fans treat you online?
MP: I think it contributes to it, in a way. Certainly gives people even an unconscious preconcieved notion about the type of person I am. I also didn’t help matters in the sense that I was provocative. I was only tough on people who were abusing me, if they were already attacking me. I believed in the old-school way of bullying, which is the bully comes up and tries to abuse you. Punch him in the face and they usually stop. With this form of aggression, this relational aggression, it doesn’t work that way. It’s actually like pouring gasoline on a fire. You really can’t fight them. The overall intent and purpose of the leaders of these bands of people is power. That form of relational violence and aggression, it’s easier to acquire power. I do think it contributed to their pre-conceptions of me, but I also fought. I’m not used to not fighting. If you’ll mess with me, I’ll fight back with you. And so that gave them plenty to decontextualize and build a narrative around a decontextualized tweet.
One of the more famous ones like they to use, Andrew, you’ll appreciate this because it’s before I learned to link my tweets together. I was in a thread but wasn’t linking my tweets together properly. I’d literally had a 14-tweet thread defending innocent Muslims from Islamist terror. In response to a tweet where someone had taken my critique of Islamism as a critique of Muslims in general, I said “Not all Muslims are terrorists.” Clearly, this shouldn’t even be an issue. We shouldn’t even be talking about this. Because I didn’t thread my tweets together correctly, the ‘not’ was in the tweet above “All Muslims are terrorists.” They’ve been able to take that and say: “Oh, this son of a b***h! Look at what he said.”
AR: It’s neurotic thinking that lends favour to the inability to think for one’s self. And, it’s led to a blame culture that nobody wants to do the work. To use Mark’s example, to go and say “What was the context of that statement? Let me look above, maybe it was in response to a tweet.” There’s so many factors that we all do and unfortunately, people are just judging each other by, well, “You shouldn’t have had to defend yourself in the first place because if you are defending yourself, you need to be careful.” When your name is on the line, you need to do whatever you need to do to protect yourself, staying in legal bounds and not harming another person. Even then, these trolling communities feel there should be rules on how to defend yourself. It’s not fair.
If people want to find more information about The Guardian Project, where can they find it?
AR: You could find us on Facebook, The Guardian Project. Twitter is @GuardianProj, Instagram is @GuardianProjectOfficial. Probably the easiest out of all of that is to follow Mark on social media and he links out to The Guardian Project, which will take you to a Kickstarter, that is on right now.
Considering the time we are all living in, what advice would you give to people who may be struggling amidst the pandemic?
AR: Don’t be afraid to ask for help, it’s okay to ask for help. It’s okay to reach out to a family member. If you’re not comfortable reaching out to family, or you can’t, reach out to a friend. If not a friend, reach out to us, reach out to anyone. We try to be better, to do better and I think the biggest problem with people is they feel alone. It’s not tattling, it’s not ratting somebody out. Taking control over your emotions, taking responsibility over your mental health. Protecting yourself.
If that means reaching out to somebody like Mark or myself, to direct you to somebody, that speaks miles. I don’t have nearly the following or community that Mark does but whenever I get messages from people I’ve never met, I will always take the time to respond. I remember when I first started in my career, I hated that people thought they were too good or too busy to reach out. I try to do better and be better. So, ask for help. Reach out.
MP: I’m going to echo those sentiments, too. I think these times are almost designed to isolate us and make us feel alone. We’re social beings, we need to interact with other humans. Don’t be afraid to reach out to someone and say you need some help. It’s okay, it’s okay.
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