Interview: Mark Pellegrino and Andrew Rossow Discuss Their Plan for the Guardian Project

Mark Pellegrino, who is most known for his lead role as Lucifer in the CW series Supernatural, in addition to his lead role in Netflix's hit series 13 Reasons Why, among other series has teamed up with internet attorney Andrew Rossow to launch a campaign for The Guardian Project, a new reality docuseries.

The Guardian Project is a multi-tiered attack on the epidemic problems of public bullying and the spreading of libelous narratives on social media. The Kickstarter campaign officially launched on October 27th, which seeks to raise money to help create a reality docuseries that not only exposes online bullying and libel, but offers community solutions and reformative justice for the victims. 

Wealth of Geeks spoke with Mark Pellegrino and Andrew Rossow about The Guardian Project and their plans for legal reform.

Mark Pellegrino Discusses the Guardian Project

Mark Pellegrino talks about The Guardian Project

Maggie Lovitt (ML): So what is The Guardian Project?

Mark Pellegrino (MP): The Guardian Project started from my experience with online bullying. Some people were spreading false narratives about me and actually trying to ruin my career by attempting to make these false narratives go viral within and outside of the fandom. This has happened in three waves. 

During the latest wave, a group of my fans circled the wagons around me and began to protect me against the bullies by posting the actual tweets and contexts and countering their assertions with facts. The effects of this ad hoc protection force were threefold: It stopped the false narratives in their tracks; it relieved me of the unfortunate task of having to defend my reputation alone and discouraged the bullies by humanizing me.

The fact that bullies were discouraged by my humanization led me to conclude that I was not a real person to them and that that simple fact made any pain I felt an abstraction as well. That realization got me thinking about anonymity in general. 

Online interactions on big social media platforms are largely anonymous. In other words, the victimizer is one person within a horde. He is concealed behind a social media mask. From this position, he can throw stones with near impunity at a target he hates but doesn't know or relate to as a person. Easy peezy. All of the power of anonymity with none of the responsibility.

Andrew and I began to brainstorm about ways to take away anonymity.

— Mark Pellegrino

Andrew and I began to brainstorm about ways to take away anonymity. The first concept we came up with was a docuseries where we could bring the victim and victimizer together. We envisioned a scenario where the normally voiceless victim has the legal and monetary resources to fight back against the victimizer. 

We envisioned ‘confrontations' between the victim and abuser going in one of two directions: 

  • The optimal direction is reconciliation, where the abuser sees and identifies with his victim and seeks to make amends by ‘doing better.' That amounts to an agreed-upon period of monitored internet use and periodic check-ins to note progress. We call this the reconciliation and rehabilitation form of justice.
  • The less optimal direction is a form of restitution or reconstitution, where the victim, now armed with the resources, can seek redress for the objective damages the victimizer has caused. We would help the victim pursue a case and follow the results to the end.

The final aspects of The Guardian Project would have to do with seeking legal reform and working with social media platforms to:

  • Permanently split adult and children's platforms, with the former being heavily monitored while simultaneously making parents legally accountable for their child's behavior online.
  • Devising objective rules for quantifying de-platforming: namely libel, slander, and threats of violence, as opposed to subjective linguistic turns and algorithms.
  • Lobbying for universal verification, whereby people are tied to their identities. Those identities would be shared across social media platforms so that bad actors cannot merely grab a new screen name and continue abusing.

ML: So, how do you see the confrontation in the docuseries going? How do you envision that reconciliation between the two parties?

MP: One of three ways:

  • The victimizer chooses to meet the victim, come clean, and make amends. The amends part would include submitting to a program designed to rehabilitate both the victim and the victimizer and push the latter into cleaner and more productive communication habits.
  • The victimizer refuses to reconcile, in which case our program would include the resources to make the victim whole again…whether that means legal action or recruiting employers who are willing to help the injured person get on his feet again. The latter is a great step towards making the corporate world more responsive to actual, rather than mob justice.
  • The victimizer can choose not to engage at all, in which case the victim would have the resources to follow through with legal action.

ML: That's a really interesting idea. So do you think there's something larger about society that has kind of emboldened these bullies? Or is it just social media-based? 

MP: I do think there's something larger going on in society. I think for many decades, emotional reasoning has been replacing thinking. The result is that people are now using emotionalism as a tool of cognition and truth. So, rather than reasoning through issues and arriving at an objective answer, they are feeling their way through issues and believing their feelings to be set truths. 

This amounts to subjective feelings holding the same moral status as objective truth. Feelings-centered truths incentivize barriers to dialogue for the simple fact that when feelings become the standard for measuring what's true or good, there can be no common reference point that serves as a means of confirmation or disconfirmation. 

If you think I'm exaggerating the ubiquitousness of emotional reasoning as a standard for measuring right and wrong, ask yourself which faculty every narrative you've ever seen or heard asks you to rely on for important truths and you'll see it's always the heart. NEVER the head. Social media just amplifies the irrationality.

ML: Is the project going to focus at all on “call-out culture” and when there are valid concerns that people speak out about? Will there be a way to help moderate that conversation so that it can be a constructive learning experience?

MP: It depends on what you mean by ‘call-out' culture. Social media is a voice amplifier. This CAN be a very good thing. It democratizes the information dissemination process so that literally anyone can be a content provider. If what they are providing is true (and is being shut out of other news venues for some reason or another) that's extremely powerful and helpful. It can serve as an equalizer against the powerful. 

But it's important to realize that though social media can disseminate information, it is not a court and should not be a court. Public opinion is not the forum for issues that require a process of inquiry and judgment and should not be used in that way. I don't think there is any external program that can make people more civil. This only comes through the process and the integration of the right kind of values. We CAN deal with those who choose to try others by spreading false narratives and thereby make potential abusers more circumspect about using the medium as a means of hurting people.

ML: That's something else that you and Andrew are planning to work on with the Guardian Project. You're working to reform existing libel and slander laws, correct?

MP: Yeah, that's correct. I discovered that in California, it's nearly impossible to sue somebody for defamation. Someone could be passing around the worst narratives about you; they could get petitions signed against you and connect all of your employers and immediate contacts in that petition. They could completely destroy your career, and there's not a whole lot you can do about it unless you have very, very deep pockets. 

In the state of California, if you launch a defamation lawsuit against somebody, there's an automatic countersuit filed against you. In which case, all of your media, all of your texts, and everything that you've ever written become a grist for the mill for some attorney to pick something out of context and paint you a certain way. 

You have to retain an attorney just for this process (which is crazy expensive); Then open up your entire life (all texts and emails and other electronic communications public and private) to the judgment of an opposing attorney who's going to paint everything that you do and say in some horrible context. Even with all of that, you risk not being able to prove intent on the part of the party who is defaming you and then have to pay their legal fees. 

So unless you're crazy rich, you're stuck being a victim to these hordes, and they know it. The clever ones actually dare you to sue them.

ML: That's insane. I had no idea.

MP: Yup. I think the laws are anachronistic. They have to be brought up to the 21st century. We don't have the type of media anymore where huge establishments are processing and disseminating information to individuals. Individuals are creating content (in effect becoming reporters spreading news), so these individuals have to be held accountable for what they do. I would like to help social media platforms come up with honest, objective standards before the market acts against them and makes them the MySpace of tomorrow. 

I certainly don't think congressional oversight is an answer and am extremely uncomfortable with the heads of these companies being dragged before congress because of prejudices (they are allowed to enforce with their own property). The answers are tort reform, objective rules guiding de-platforming, universal verification so that abusers earn and keep bad reputations across the spectrum of platforms. If this means de-platforming Hamas, The Ayatollah, and North Korea well, that would be consistent with a rights-respecting non-force platform. 

ML: Yeah, it makes sense. You have also talked about how your fans have become guardians. How do people become guardians if they want to help protect people on social media?

MP: First of all, I think they can put the moniker in their profile, just put the devil emoji next to the guardian angel. When they see somebody being piled on, they can step in and protect that person. If there's enough evidence out there to show that the abusers are actually spreading false narratives, then they can counter it with that evidence. Then the victim can feel somewhat surrounded and helped. 

These social media mobs isolate people and then pile on them. People feel utterly and totally abandoned and alone. Nobody wants to come to their assistance because nobody wants to be subjected to the same thing. But by having a group of people, sort of like the neighborhood watch of social media, as an example could inspire others to stand up when they see these terrible things happening.

ML: Once your Kickstarter is funded, what is the next step for the Guardian Project?

MP: Once it's funded, that money goes to a producer who's going to start a pitch platform. The pitch platform is just a sophisticated outline that demonstrates to a network that this is a good enough show to want to invest in. That's going to take about three or four months of development and then pitching it to various networks to see who it would best gel with.

Follow Mark Pellegrino on Instagram and Twitter

Andrew Rossow Talks About What Sparked the Guardian Project

Drew Rossow Amaris Mendoza Photography
Andrew Rossow talks about The Guardian Project

Maggie Lovitt (ML): So how did you and Mark [Pellegrino] come together to start working on the Guardian Project?

Andrew Rossow (AR): That's an interesting question because I've been a fan of Mark for many, many years as a Supernatural fan. I followed his social media and noticed the power of his network. Seeing that he's also a victim of a larger trolling network, I thought it would be a good start to maybe have [him] record a PSA for his community of guardians and give some advice to his followers that get bullied simply for supporting him. 

I reached out to him to do a Cameo for my own anti-bullying movement. I'm a talent recruiter for Cameo, and a lot of times, I will use my own personal funds to have individuals, like Mark, who I respect and who stand for something positive and meaningful, do a video if they so choose for my trademarked anti-bullying movement, #CYBERBYTE®. Mark was gracious enough to do that video. It was probably one of the most impactful videos I've had. There was something about his that was just incredibly moving, passionate, and it just spoke to me, and I wanted to know more about his story. 

I reached out on Twitter to thank him and said that I would love to do a follow-up interview with him. He was very kind to respond immediately, and we set up a Zoom interview. Halfway through, we came up with this idea of a business venture, which is really what the missing piece has been for what he's tried to get up over the years. So that's where the Guardian Project came from. Then our interview finished, and we were on the phone for another two hours talking about what we could do together.

ML: With your anti-bullying movement #CYBERBYTE was there anything that you learned during that process that you've now brought with you into the Guardian Project?

AR: Absolutely. First and foremost, you can't do it by yourself. When I started five years ago, I didn't know what I wanted to do. All I knew at that time was that I wanted individuals in the public spotlight to take a stand and to use the power that their social media clout has. With the help of DJ Gareth Emery and Supernatural‘s Misha Collins, I was able to get this off the ground, as they served as the very first #CYBERBYTE PSA Ambassadors. 

Second, I wanted to bridge the gap which Hollywood and Silicon Valley creates with fans and consumers. We idolize many of these figures, but why is that? Who are they off-screen? Who are they outside the office? What do they stand for? These are questions that many of us don't have the answers to, which I believe should be shared. 

Third, at the end of the day, everybody has a story to tell—they just need a safe and comfortable platform to tell it. The issue is that many have convinced themselves they need to bury and silence themselves out of fear. I wanted to give those individuals a platform. Little did I know (or expect) that I would connect with Mark and fill what I believed to be the missing piece to the puzzle. 

I hope with both #CYBERBYTE and The Guardian Project that we can bridge this gap for victims. It does not matter what your status is as a public figure or an everyday person. Everybody needs to be treated with respect, and sometimes the blinding light of shame can distract people. 

ML: Part of The Guardian Project is seeking to reform some of the aspects of the libel and slander laws. How do you envision those changing?

AR: Right now, we're starting to see individuals and organizations being held accountable. We have been watching Congress call on Facebook, Twitter, and Google executives about how their enormous growth as tech giants can help influence positive change for the legal landscape by modernizing our laws, specifically Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. 

While I don't agree that these CEOs should be forced by legislators to run their “playground” a certain way (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube), I do believe that they do have a responsibility in keeping their playground safe, secure, and informative for users. 

Part of the issue we face, including Congress, is a lack of understanding as to how social media operates and how to interpret our laws in today's digital age.

— Andrew Rossow

Part of the issue we face, including Congress, is a lack of understanding as to how social media operates and how to interpret our laws in today's digital age. This creates complications when you have individuals who are much older or digital immigrants, as they are called, weighing in on complex issues they know nothing about. 

In terms of enforcing the laws, it's already started. In Maryland, Senator Bobby Zirkin has pushed for the past four or five years for Grace's Law, which is named after Grace McComas, the fifteen-year-old girl who took her own life. As of today, Grace's Law 2.0 was passed last year, and it is one of the strictest cyberbullying laws that the United States has. 

Now the problem is that while most states have some form of an electronic harassment law, their criminal provisions are lacking. I believe that of the forty-seven to forty-eight states that have electronic harassment laws, I think maybe forty-four of them have some sort of criminal provision. The problem with those provisions is that they are just a slap on the wrist. 

I don't know if you remember, but a few years ago, out in Boston, Conrad Roy. His girlfriend, Michelle Carter, at the time, was coaching and encouraging him to commit suicide. Right up until the moment where he's having second thoughts and saying, “Hey, I'm not so sure about this, I don't think I'm ready to do this.” And she just gave him the push that made him do it. But it was done through text messages and, while his death was ruled a suicide, it was later discovered through those text messages that it wasn't. 

So in terms of enforcing the laws, we have to get over this notion that sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me. That's not true. Right? Words are weaponized. Social media isn't bad, just like guns aren't bad. Guns don't kill people; people kill people. They make a choice to use guns as an instrument, just as individuals choose to use social media like Twitter, or Facebook, or text messages as the instrument to facilitate their behavior. 

ML: When I was talking to Mark, he was talking about having people rallying the wagons around people to support them. Is that an aspect of The Guardian Project then, to really encourage people to kind of self-regulate these laws themselves, when the larger tech sites aren't stepping in?

AR: I think in part [it is] because there is only so much responsibility that the social media platforms should have and that we should expect them to have right now. I'm not saying that they shouldn't have their own mechanisms and systems in place and response teams They definitely should. But I think from a local level, or a much smaller level, individuals can help one another and help monitor and defend. I think that's the first step. 

For the tech companies, there's only so much they can do. They're not going to catch every tweet; they're not going to see every instance where somebody is alleging harm or threatening harm. The algorithms aren't that smart or sophisticated. We do need to hold each other accountable and take responsibility for our actions. I think to Mark's point, having a group or individuals around other users that can help enforce, promote, and encourage compliance is a starting point. Because it does start on a local level, and that's important.

ML: Does The Guardian Project plan to partner with any existing organizations like the Anti-Defamation League or other anti-bullying organizations?

AR: We've had very brief conversations; there's nothing official yet. I know, I have been in touch with their team. As a journalist, I've covered some of the updates that they have done. But yes, we do plan on partnering with other organizations. The reason for it is that it's a team effort. 

There are certain skills, experiences, backgrounds, demographics that Mark and I bring to the table. Mark and I have nearly similar stories of our own bullying that we were subjected to, but we also come from two different worlds, which is a good thing, because there are things that he's able to speak to and see in ways that [I'm] not and vice versa. 

Being able to partner with other organizations that have similar and successful visions, the more people that can come together for this, the better. It doesn't require anyone giving up their autonomy or giving up their charity or their brand. But the ability to have a global web, where organizations are connected to one another [and are] able to direct individuals or connect people. That's powerful. I don't think we've seen that yet, at least publicly. 

Follow Andrew Rossow on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter

Find out more about The Guardian Project on the Kickstarter. 

Maggie Lovitt is a writer at Wealth of Geeks where she covers her favorite topics: Star Wars and pop culture nerdery.

In her free time, she is also a novelist, screenwriter, actor, and member of the Screen Actors Guild.