The Guardian Project aims to create a better online world by facing viral defamation and bullying in a reality show exposing the people who use the anonymity of the Internet to intimidate and belittle others.
The Internet is a ubiquitous space that creates a world where people are mostly free from real accountability. Anonymous accounts behind profile pictures say what they want, when they want, how they want, regardless of how it affects anything else in the world. This unchecked power is often used to bully others or defame people.
PopAxiom hopped on Zoom with Mark and Andrew to discuss their paths to the present and their union for The Guardian Project.
Mark Pellegrino is an actor best known for playing Lucifer/Nick on the long-running CW series Supernatural. But acting wasn’t his first goal.
Mark: “I grew up watching movies with my mom. But acting was never my gig. I wanted to grow up and save the world. I wanted to be a marine biologist.”
Andrew Rossow isn’t a face you’ll recognize because he works a gig that typically takes place behind the scenes and away from cameras.
Andrew: “Law has always been fascinating to me … I’ve grown up with technology like Napster, Limewire, Kazaa, and seeing how tech began to penetrate everything that my group of friends and colleagues interact with on a daily basis. I wanted to see how I could take tech and harmonize it with legal principles. I didn’t ever want to feel alone where I didn’t have a support system around me. I wanted to put myself in a position to help others through tech.”
Andrew: “Earlier this year, I had the privilege of meeting Mark through a Cameo request for my own anti-cyberbullying movement, #CYBERBYTE, only to immediately discover that we both had eerily similar upbringings and experiences with bullying. It was clear our interests aligned, which is fighting what seems the un-winnable. Minimizing harm that has such an effect on mental health. Being able to help the right person, pointing them in the right direction, and helping people not feel alone. That’s what drives me.”
There’s a lot of debate about the best way to raise children. The term “helicopter parent” describes moms and dads who don’t give their kids breathing room to fail and succeed organically. It’s seen by many as contributing to larger problems.
Mark: “Going outside, playing, learning to resolve conflicts with your contemporaries, either by fighting or running or being snarky, you built up a moral immune system, just like your body builds up an immune system by being in contact with parasites and bacteria all the time.”
The same goes for facing challenging ideas, which is increasingly rare in an age of endless distractions. There was a time when one-third of the television viewing audience watched things like All In The Family, which boldly faced important and controversial topics.
Mark: “Seeing on the TV the relationship between ideas and prejudice fighting progressivism on-screen built up our debate immune system, our rational immune system, to be able to fight off prejudice because we dealt with them openly.”
Mark and many would agree that there’s a growing problem of people hiding in echo chambers.
Mark: “We’re isolating children who don’t play anymore. There’s a reason their bodies are hypoallergenic; they’re allergic to everything; they get sick easier, their immune systems are weaker, and they have no tolerance for difference and no means of coping with opposition. When I went out into the schoolyard, I probably punched friends I still have to this day in the face, and they punched me. I was a bully at times and got punched straight in the mouth and learned better. I protected kids. That comes from presenting a risk of accountability. Now, we have to bring that same kind of accountability into cyberspace.”
Andrew: “People are so used to being behind a screen that they forget how to interact face-to-face. What is hard about picking up a phone? We do it all the time. Someone leaves a voice mail, and we text them back. There are instances where time is of the essence, but when did we forget to stop communicating or see and feel emotions. The Internet’s become a crutch of sorts for how people act and behave.”
About The Guardian Project
Mark’s journey as an actor put him in front of the camera for roles like in Supernatural and 13 Reasons Why, a show which boldly faces many issues that most people want to run away from. Andrew was doing his part by running an organization meeting the online bullying threat head-on. How did the pair come together for The Guardian Project?
Andrew: “I’m grateful to be a part of Mark’s network, the Guardian Network. I reached out to Mark through Cameo. One of the many hats I wear is that of a journalist. I reach out to individuals and learn their stories. I’ve been running an independent social media movement called #Cyberbyte, which is trademarked. It is an anti-cyberbullying movement that I started after I passed the bar exam, which is designed to bridge the gap between Silicon Valley and Hollywood by bringing consumers and fans closer to these executives and public figures through storytelling. What I’ve learned through it is that everybody has a story.”
“I serve as a talent recruiter for Cameo,” Andrew explains, “so my job is to find individuals who serve as a model representation of positivity and inspiration. What they look for are people like Mark, who inspire and have a powerful message. I’ve used my personal Cameo account (not my talent recruiter) to request that individuals like Mark to join my #CYBERBYTE movement. All they would need to do is record a 30-60 second PSA about their story. What is their message on bullying? The communities that follow them might not know their story. People listen to Mark’s words, and if he could speak out, it would be powerful.”
Mark: “I did the Cameo, which was a very assertive attack on bullying.”
Andrew: Mark did the video, and it was one of the most inspiring videos I have seen. After watching it, I wanted to know more. I wanted to write about it. I reached out to him on Twitter and said I would love to speak with him about his story.”
Mark: “We did the interview, which went for about an hour. After the interview, we talked for another hour or so, and we had a very similar background and experiences with harassment and bullying. The way we grew up and being a step behind our peers which made us targets. That’s sort of the glue that stuck us together. We decided to form a business venture together and find ways to make people safer online.”
Andrew: “I think halfway through the interview, we realized we might be a missing piece for one another.”
Social Media Tool
A hammer is a tool and a weapon, and social media is no different.
Mark: “All technology brings with it good and bad. The good of all the accessibility is that everyone has a voice. The bad is that everybody has a voice, including sadistic, mean-spirited people, nihilistic people who just want to hurt.”
Mark asserts, “We want these people to think twice about doing what they’re doing.”
But the problem isn’t only the user but the platform.
Mark: “There’s a certain aspect of the medium that encourages this type of interaction because it sells and keeps people on the platform. Lies are more readily believed and spread more easily than the truth.”
Andrew: “Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act has shielded platforms since 1996. Today, it protects tech platforms from being held liable for users’ posts and allowing these platforms to moderate content in good faith, without repercussions. In many ways, this is a good mechanism to have. However, the question we must now ask is: at what point is there a line, or can there be a line drawn to where such hatred, libel, defamation, nihilism to where 230 no long protects a platform? Where objective harm is not part of Section 230 protection.”
“Especially if users like you and I are hitting that report button,” Andrew continues. “What good is a report button if it’s just an automated process that says ‘Thank you for reporting the violation.’”
Andrew: “Regulators are starting to get it because they have kids who themselves are being victimized. It’s a tough political climate right now, but it’s opened our eyes to some of the evils that our society has allowed to continue for years. Recently, Senator Ted Cruz called out Twitter’s Jack Dorsey on ‘who the hell made him king’ of such behavior?”
Mark: “I’m frightened by the political climate. But, who made Jack Dorsey king? We did. We solicited his product. Let us hold individual users accountable. These individual bullies or hordes of bullies need to be held accountable. We want to tie your identity to your handle so that if you get kicked off, you’re off.”
Andrew: “There’s no authentication or due diligence for users to be tied to an account; an email which can be a garbage email. For something like Twitter, they should submit information like a driver’s license or passport that ties them to the system. There’s got to be a way to track. The problem is right now, when someone is de-platformed or banned, what do they do? They make another account. In a very limited sense, Parler’s verification mechanism is a solution, requiring every user to submit a form of identification, like a driver’s license or passport, which gets them a “red verification badge,” indicating they are a REAL person. Other forms of verification badges for media networks, public figures, or other affiliate partners exist…this is okay. Why can’t this be done for Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or TikTok?
The Guardian Project aims to strike hard with a show that protects and educates.
Mark: “We’re going to create a pitch platform for networks so that we can produce a reality show geared towards exposing victimizes and helping victims get justice. That’s the thumbnail sketch.”
Andrew: “It’s How To Catch A Predator meets Catfish. It’s not to entrap, but to bring to light the reality that cyber-bullying is real and does happen, every second of every day.”
Tackling any problem typically begins with erasing ignorance.
Andrew: “Many people still don’t believe that online bullying is a crime or should be a crime. States are still struggling with it. They all have a form of an electronic harassment law, but it’s a slap on the wrist. What happens when that harassment turns into another person harming themselves? We saw that with the Conrad Roy case. There are arguments on both sides. What that court did that was landmark was say, ‘Stick and stones is a lie,’ and it’s always been a lie. Words do hurt, and words do kill. If social media is used as a weapon, it creates a lot of problems. So, we want to make people aware that they have a platform to speak out and not feel isolated. They have a community.”
Often overlooked is the help that victimizers need. Andrew discusses just that. “On the flip side, it gives these aggressors a means to confront, if they choose, their actions and why they feel they have to act that way.”
Mark: “Words hurt. They can do objective damage to a person’s life. When you’re passing a false narrative, and it becomes viral, you’re hurting a person’s reputation. There are religions that consider the killing of someone’s reputation as equivalent to murder. And it is. If you prevent someone from getting a job because of the false narratives you put out about them … you’ve effectively stolen that person’s life. That’s objective damage, and those people who do that kind of thing need to be held accountable.”
Learn More Or Support The Guardian Project HERE.
Thanks to Mark Pellegrino (TWITTER & INSTAGRAM) and Andrew Rossow (TWITTER & INSTAGRAM), and Studio Matrix for making this interview possible.
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