If the Galaxy can have its ‘Guardians’, why can’t the Internet?
Unfortunately, since COVID-19 has been at large for the past six months, online bullying has only worsened, as the entire world has been forced onto cyberspace to continue with their daily routine and career requirements.
And because of this, online personalities and entertainers are starting to grow weary and tired of having to see their fan base attacked, along with themselves thrown into ‘tweet’ storms where they may find their employers and fellow actors/actresses tagged.
I spoke with CW Supernatural star, Mark Pellegrino in a very insightful and proactive Zoom video call about the frustration actors like Pellegrino experience and observe simply from being a personality, and what our social media platforms should be doing in the war against online bullying.
While Pellegrino has had many reputable roles throughout the years, including Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why (Deputy Bill Standall), Dexter (Paul Bennett), Lost (Jacob), Being Human (Bishop), his more popular role resides with his witty and pragmatic portrayal of ‘Lucifer’ in the long-standing CW series, Supernatural, starring Samantha Smith, Jensen Ackles, Jared Padalecki, and Misha Collins.
But even the devil himself has his own demons, as Pellegrino has been and continues to be victimized by online trolling, which led to the creation of his own brainchild of how to rid the digital world of bullies by holding them accountable, publicly.
And into the inferno we go!
When I asked the Supernatural star about how he has responded to trolling that he has faced on his own accounts, Pellegrino identified two waves of trolling that he has personally encountered and still observes today, especially following the death of George Floyd, to which society’s response towards, continues to add to our culture of violence we see unfold, under the guise of “social justice.”
Using the Idea of ‘Social Justice’ to Target Others in a Destructive Manner
“Social justice” as defined in Oxford’s dictionary is the objective of creating a fair and equal society in which each individual matters, their rights are recognized and protected, and decisions are made in ways that are fair and honest.
But the ‘social justice’ we are seeing advocated for today, isn’t actually the ‘social justice’ we are fighting for. In today’s era of rising authoritarianism, social injustice, racial inequality, and tackling a global pandemic that has brought out the many, many colors of our world’s leaders (and fellow woman/man) when addressing our public (and each other).
Back in July, I shared my own experience with bullying, which followed me throughout high school because of a sexual assault that took place at a summer camp 17 years ago. And from the public shame that came from sharing my story, along with being removed from my position with a news outlet I helped build, as I refused to remove my story, came an epiphany:
We need to take action. No more can people (and platforms) hide behind anonymity and Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Serving as the most important law protecting internet speech, in favor of social media platforms, the CDA is also the most dangerous law, enabling users to behave poorly online. The lack of accountability and consequences for those who violate the terms of service of any given social media platform is preposterous.
In my fight against online bullying and sexual assault, I’ve looked for leaders throughout Hollywood, Silicon Valley, and the media that are willing to stand up and speak out against online bullying, hatred, exploitation, and nihilism.
Like his co-stars, Pellegrino wants not just his community to know, but the world to know that enough is enough, and he too has been (and still is) a victim to the insidious behavior that is online bullying.
“It’s taken a toll on me for sure,” Pellegrino admitted to me. He emphasized to me that he’s had “two waves of intense, destructive trolling” that he’s faced and continues to tackle as we speak:
“The first wave was a group led by about five very sophisticated sociopaths who didn’t like my notions of the way people should interact with eachother–so they were anti-liberty, anti-individualism, and they attempted to frame all of my individualistic messages as racist, biggoted, homophobic–you know the typical trigger words they like to use to try and smear you sans argument. The things they were saying about me were so heinous that I fought them. I saw my reputation being publicly impugned by these people and stood up to them and I found that standing up to them didn’t weaken them. It made them stronger, because there’s sort of a dynamic that happens, where they sense blood in the water, and a swarm occurs. And no matter how powerful your arguments are or how big you think you are, there’s only so many individuals you can take on at any one time, and they used that fact in their favor, to really try and take you down.”
But what came of his encounter with this first wave?
“I survived that, I think by doing a podcast that addressed all of their accusations. I actually retweeted some of their accusations with my own actual evidence underneath it.”
The CW star also shared that he then started a campaign called “One Love” to attempt to address what was happening to him, hoping it would translate to his community who stood by him and may also have been victimized by such hatred.
“I thought if I tried to take Stephen Covey’s approach– ‘seek first to understand, then to be understood’ from a rational point of view, because sarcasm and snarkiness, which is my attempt at disarming some of this viciousness, is lost on these people. Not only is it lost because the medium of text loses the substance of information you’re trying to transmit, but because these people are perceptual level human beings. They’re actually not deeply conceptual, so when you’re actually being sarcastic, they actually think you’re being serious and don’t know how to relate to it, which becomes more fuel to their fire. And then they’re passing that onto more concrete level people who don’t know how to relate to it, and that becomes the narrative.”
Pellegrino’s campaign tried to counter that, as he explained, adding, “that it sort of went away.”
“Those people sort of faded away–one of them got institutionalized in a mental hospital and she’s a very talented human being and very articulated person. I encouraged her throughout our vicious exchanges to actually focus her talents on something constructive, instead of destructive. But she couldn’t manage to do that.”
Using the Banner of Social Justice to Further Damaging Behavior
Our conversation then transitioned into the second wave Pellegrino faced: teenagers.
“It was a hoard of kids cut-off with nothing from the neck up, literally. Completely immersed in a type of social conflict, a dialectic critical race theory, with all the talking points of the postmodernist intellectual in their arsenal, and that’s what they use against you. And likewise, I rose up and started fighting back because they were posting things that were not true. They were posting things that had been proven false years and years ago, but were now getting repurchased, but their motives were even more insidious than the first wave.”
Andrew Rossow: What would you say was different about this wave of teenagers compared to the first wave you experienced?
Mark Pellegrino: The first wave sort of had an idea of social justice, and they thought to a degree they were fighting someone “bad”, as twisted as they were. These guys used the banner of “social justice” and the idea and language that they were fighting for something good; to get more popular, self-esteem, more likes and followers. They would deliberately try to engage me and deliberately post a lie with the intention of me giving them attention, because that actually served as giving them social points in the group they were in. They then became “cool” if I blocked them or recognized them.
From a literary standpoint, Pellegrino compared this wave of vile behavior to a ‘Lord of the Flies’ atmosphere.“They’re pre-ethical in a sense; they don’t understand ethics or the impact of their behavior on other folks, and they don’t care. They might in 10 or 15 years, but they certainly don’t now.”
The Disease of ‘Adult Capitalization’
One fact we both agreed upon immediately following this was how adults capitalize off the ignorance of youth who feel it’s okay to target others.
“…they are sort of being capitalized by adults out there who are giving children the same intellectual status as experienced adults. You see it in the real-world out there with Greta Thunberg being idolized as an environmentalist.”
I asked Pellegrino what he meant by this, to which he responded:
“I don’t think she knows principle one about science. But yet, we are supposed to listen to her and David Hogg, who is an anti-gun extremist and critic of the-2nd Amendment, simply because he was the victim of a terrible tragedy. I’m not going to take advice from a high school kid on the 2nd Amendment or the nature of the U.S. Constitution, and whether or not any of these things are viable pieces of law anymore. Because you know what, these individuals simply don’t have the experience or the knowledge to inform me about it.”
And he’s not wrong.
Adding to the discussion on the disease that is “adult capitalization”, we’ve both noticed how adults, particularly parents take advantage of their life experience and bring the youth into their delusional way of thinking, and in more common cases, encourage the behavior without any deep-level thinking or analysis.
“But so many adults, lots of actors that I know, I see jumping on these bandwagons, thinking these kids are great. They just recently praised the group of [TikTok] trolls who bolloxed up Trump’s Oklahoma rally. Now, I’m not a Trump guy, but it’s like really? You’re going to encourage the mob to disrupt free speech? This is what in essence you’re doing: you’re encouraging a mob to shut down ideas. And that’s not how freedom is preserved. Anyway, these kids have a grandiose sense of their own moral sanctity and weight, and they think they have a message that is somehow original that needs to be put out in the world and listened to. Not just an opinion from a 15-year-old kid, but a viable moral message that they think comes from deep thought and analysis, and it just comes from their teachers, professors, and culture–and they really haven’t analyzed it very deeply.
As 2021 Approaches, Here’s How Social Media Giants Should Be Responding to Bullying On Its Platforms
In addition to my legal practice, I also help serve clients in what I call ‘brand and reputation management’, where I have the privilege and opportunity to work with Hollywood talent, including online personalities and child stars. I shared with Pellegrino a current client (with permission of course) I am working with, of whom I believe to be the victim of the worst case of online bullying, harassment, stalking, and arguably wire fraud I’ve seen to date.
The problem here is that Lillee Jean, 19, has been suffering for nearly two years now alongside her mother because the trolling community believes her to be a fraud? Or believes she has purchased fake followers? Or just not “qualified” to be on social media? And despite pleas for help from the platforms, nothing has been done.
What will it take for users to be heard? Because taking an image of Jean, a young woman as a baby (don’t ask me how they even found it), and cropping it onto the body of Adolf Hitler, with a knife to his throat, which explicitly says ‘Go Die Lillee Jean’, doesn’t seem to be a violation of terms of service.
Welcome to the trolling community. where it is the judge, jury, and executioner of your every activity.
And as Pellegrino quietly listened in horror, the only response he could formulate, summed it up perfectly:
“And that’s how these mobs get more power.”
Which is why we both agreed that it’s time these social media platforms change their algorithms in favor of users who are victimized, targeted, and put in a dangerous position of questioning their own mental health and sanity.
Step 1: Change These Algorithms to Favor Immediate Deplatforming
Step one, Pellegrino suggests, is immediately deplatforming these individuals.
“I think the algorithms that [these social media platforms] use to define whatever their parameters are for speech, don’t seem to be very good. They seem to be highly biased in one direction. I think what they need to do if they are a ‘free speech platform’ is understand that free speech still precludes violence and libel.”
And for Pellegrino’s own experience with trolling on his social media accounts, there’s no question the libel is there. Go see for yourself, because I won’t help these trolls gain social points for highlighting their tweets in this article.
“In my case especially, the libel is very easy to show and with just a little bit of investigation that these people are not telling the truth. So, anybody who engages in violent rhetoric or rhetoric with the intention of stirring up violence, and outright lies to create a narrative about a person to ruin their lives, they should be immediately deplatformed.”
Of course with certain criteria, he quickly followed up with.
“There should be objective criteria for that behavior and a squad of people that are dedicated to just that. Without their political prejudices serving as guidelines–just the guideline of ‘violence’ and a ‘lie’. Is it violent? Is it force or fraud? That’s the only guideline they use, and then deplatform those people.”
Steps 2/3: Strip Aggressors of Their ‘Anonymity’
The second step, in addition to de-platforming these users, as it is very easy due to the technology to come back onto the platform as somebody else, is to identify who these individuals are.
“Put them on a list with these corporations so that class-action lawsuits can be brought against groups of them,” Pellegrino enforced.
“Or focus on very powerful individual influencers, these adults you refer to that are funding these children–take them out at the knees, because they are evil. There’s just no question about it. You have to have no moral compass if you don’t think inciting violence online is evil and if you don’t think lying about someone is evil. So, then there are people who pass on narratives and lies, and those people are a different level of bad, certainly the ones instigating the behavior.
I’ve had people send me posts, ten or twelve people who I could immediately show you who they are with IP addresses and find them. Those people need to pay for what they’ve done. And the only way to do that is by making them not anonymous.”
The third step is to remove a user’s anonymity, especially when the victims are users like Pellegrino who are blue-badge verified (you know, that fancy blue check Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram use).
“Since I’m a verified account online, everyone knows who I am, and maybe it’s about taking anonymity away from them. So you don’t have to have a separate bureau of technocrats who are going over every single tweet with a fine-tooth comb, maybe it’s just that everybody is full information is disclosed or you’re able to obtain that information,should you present case to people within organization that these people are actually trying to take you out and hurt you. If you present that case, then that information is made available to you. I don’t know if you have to go through legal channels, but whatever, it’s there so you don’t have to pay high expenses to find that, and use that information to start a lawsuit against these insidious, ridiculous, irrational, vicious people.”
The ‘Perfect Storm’
Pellegrino shared with me why he’s chosen to be as outspoken as he is against online bullying and social injustice, to which we were able to then look at a particular legal case dating back to 2014, which I now actively teach in my law school course and speak on in my keynotes throughout the U.S.
“I’ve chosen to be outspoken and I made the deliberate choice to be outspoken because I feel like we are living in a bully culture,” he answered, elaborating “that verbal and physical violence is the way of dealing with opposing ideas now. And I saw this happen 4 and 5 years ago, which is why I said, the more we remain silent, the more powerful these people will become until they dominate the culture. Well, it’s a fact. Most people are either kowtowing to them now or remaining silent, and I still will stand up and fight against these people because they have to be exposed for the Charlotteans they are, otherwise you’re surrendering. And I’m not going to surrender, even if the culture goes down to these people in flames. If I’m the only one out of a hundred who decides to fight it until the end, then so be it. I’ll be the guy that stands for truth, justice, due process, and the things I respect about civilization, instead of giving it over to barbarians inside the gates.”
Case Study: Michelle Carter and Conrad Roy
As both an attorney and adjunct law professor teaching cyberspace law, I brought up the horrid case involving Michelle Carter and the death of her then-boyfriend Conrad Roy III in my conversation with Pellegrino. The 2014 case drew national attention after then 18-year-old Conrad Roy III’s body was found in the parking lot of Kmart in Massachusetts and his girlfriend, Michelle Carter, who was 17 at the time, was charged with his death because of text messages between the two found on Roy’s phone.
Shortly after Carter was convicted of involuntary manslaughter, the Juvenile Court Judge Lawrence Moniz sentenced Carter to only two and a half years in prison, which has since been reduced to 15 months, which she just finished serving last February. This sentence sparked a national outrage because of the severity of what took place.
And the question of whether a text message (in this case, over 1,000 texts which were finally released last year), a tweet, or any other electronic message can be enough to constitute involuntary manslaughter or even first-degree murder has been a question courts have generally avoided when talking about online bullying and trolling, which have ended in suicide.
[jumping back into my conversation with Pellegrino]
…“and look, even with respect to Michelle Carter and Conrad Roy which [we were just talking about], we have a perfect storm where I think for decades and decades, reason has been marginalized as a means for understanding the world, yourself, and relating to other people. And feelings have always been (for the past few decades especially) promoted as your way of dealing with what is; as your way of knowing instantaneous truth. The message we get from Hollywood, poets, and songwriters is ‘follow your heart, not your head’–so we have so much of that, the culture is saturated now, so when you get someone like Conrad Roy whose wickedly depressed and just starting to see his way out of his emotional hole, he has no rational way of dealing with his feelings; no rational way of dealing with information that his then girlfriend, Carter, was giving him. He just has these feelings that are. And if they are, they must be a true reflection of reality. And so, he ends up succumbing to his feelings and the culture ends up succumbing to their feelings, because nobody else thinks reason matters. So we have that perfect storm right now, where we have an irrational society that is discovering violence as its only means of making a point and it’s embracing it 110%.
‘Lucifer’ Speaks Out to Fans On His Devilish Nature
As for Pellegrino’s role as ‘Lucifer’ in The CW series, we explored whether the trolling he encounters regularly sparked from his role, or whether his role was simply a catalyst to the behavior:
“I definitely think Supernatural gave me the following I have, but my own personal thoughts about the way things are and should be, have wrinkled some folks. I’m sure with some of them, my role has something to do with how they look at me, so they say, once you dislike someone, everything they do and say tends to get on your nerves. So, if they dislike me because I’m the devil and I beat up their stars, then it could be that some of that dislike bleeds over into their personal opinion of me.
But mostly I find that they are sort of on the left and align on the left. Some of them are very educated, some of them just sort of getting by osmosis what the culture is giving them. And some of those people are changed by my opinion, and some aren’t. Some find my opinion like an outlier, something they haven’t heard before and it makes them think. But I would say that the people who attack me are more saturated with postmodernism than they are with Supernatural, and that’s the cause of their animosity towards me.”
And as a fan of the series myself, having grown up watching the series with my father since middle school, I had to ask the ‘King of Hell’ my three burning questions, on behalf of the entire #SPNFam and the Supernatural community: how he first got involved with the series and how his role as ‘Lucifer’ surfaced.
“I got a call from Jeremy Carver, a showrunner for Supernatural at the time (Season 3), he answered, “and they asked if I wanted to play the devil. I said ‘heck ya’ (chuckling) and I did it.”
But little did Pellegrino know that his role as the devil, written to come in at the final season (Season 5), that the show would develop into a cultural phenomena, opening up his role beyond the fifth season and integrating the character in and out throughout the series.
“[My role] was only supposed to be for the finale season; nobody anticipated the show would go beyond five seasons. So, I thought it was over and done, but it became a phenomenon. I’m not sure why, but it’s one of those unusual shows that presents a naive heroism, and I say ‘naive’ because I don’t think people nowadays consider ‘heroism’ to be very interesting anymore. They like complicated characters, where everyone is a mixed bag of moral tricks, because they think that’s what the world is and they think ethics is about, these little innumerable gray areas that we have to negotiate. And there aren’t really any gray areas in Supernatural.”
For those who have followed the series for the past 15 years, the character of Sam has always, according to Pellegrino, played with “that barometer of rationality”, but with Ackles’ portrayal of Dean, there really isn’t.
“And you know what, as black and white as that can appear from time to time, as myothic as it can be to some of us sophisticates, it’s also what we are dying for. We are dying for moral clarity, and the show gives moral clarity while also empowering human beings. What we see out there in all the sophisticated television are great, little heroic stories, but people crushed by addiction and impotence and moral ambivalence.”
“They fight it and resist authority. The messages we need to hear today are really an ingrained part of the Supernatural narrative. That’s why I think it became such a phenomena and has gone on, and my involvement in it has sort of grown out of an accident, too. ‘Lucifer’ sort of became the impish clown in Sam’s head and people liked that, responding to the humor and the malicious fun of it. And then it sort of took off and became its own thing.”
As for my generation (millennials), Supernatural continues to be that cultural phenomena both Pellegrino and I agreed it has been, to which I had the opportunity to personally thank Pellegrino for the hard work he has put into his character for the duration of the series, reminding him that not only does the show continue to resonate with our generation, but so does his character.
Thanking me, Pellegrino brought it back into our earlier conversation emphasizing that Supernatural presents fans with “guys that understand right and wrong” and who “are unapologetic about it.”
So, what was Pellegrino’s favorite part about playing ‘Lucifer’?
MP: You know, I’m a little bit of a rebel and I mean a real rebel, not a fake artist rebel. That is an aspect of Lucifer that sort of dominates his narrative. Additionally, he’s got courage and self-esteem that I don’t have (chuckling), right? He gets a conviction and sets a goal for himself. And he’s all about acquiring that goal and pushing everything out of his way to get to it, and I don’t know that I’ve ever had that kind of self-esteem, that strength to decide something as good and then go for it with unabashed clarity and to have no boundaries (chuckling) going for it. There’s something kind of liberating in that nihilism and I don’t want to give people permission to be nihilistic, but you know Chuck Palahniuk who wrote Fight Club, wrote the line—’everything you love will either leave you or die’, and that is such a profoundly nihilistic statement, but at the same time so profoundly liberating in a way, and so Lucifer who has no rules, except for what he feels and thinks is right, as sociopathic and pathological as it is on one level, it’s sort of nice to play a person who doesn’t recognize consequence (chuckling), because I can get away with it; it’s a fake world.
And my final question, which I am always curious about when speaking with actors and actresses, is whether Pellegrino ever goes back and watches old episodes of the show or instances where he really enjoyed his role.
“I have sometimes, but mostly if I’m looking for stuff to put on my reel, you know? I’ll review past scenes to see how they come off, but I’ve already gone through pretty much every season up to Season 13; I haven’t seen 14 or 15.”
As for some of his favorite episodes, he admitted that some of the shows he’s watched several times. “They’re really funny, like outside of the box episodes. I really like when the show doesn’t take itself seriously and laughs at itself. To me, that’s a great characteristic, period to have. You have to be able to laugh at yourself and be able to make fun of your flaws, because that’s the way you get better, in my opinion, because it’s psychologically open. So when I see those episodes, I have to watch them multiple times.
And what episodes capture Pellegrino’s attention and laugh?
And if you want to stay updated with Pellegrino’s fight against bullying, stay tuned for an upcoming project, which initially began as a charity to raise money for George Floyd’s memorial funds.
“But then I started to have a little inspiration,” he told me. “That maybe there could be an organization where guardians could police the Internet, so to speak, and I don’t mean in a way that media giants do it and subject people to algorithms, where necessarily good things are caught up in that algorithm and are censored out of the public conversation. I mean a real organization that went after Internet bullies that used their anonymity to spread violence, negativity, and false narratives. They are a huge part of this cancer culture, and I’ve been a victim of it. Most of them are 14-year-old kids, most of whom want popularity, are nihilistic, and depressed, and don’t feel a sense of belonging. But they do get that sense once they engage in a pact and start attacking somebody and tearing something down, and then they are recognized by people on social media, which gives them self-esteem.”
With Pellegrino’s soon-to-be brainchild, he wants these punished, as we both do. “There needs to be some real repercussions, because guys like me are not anonymous on the internet.”
“Everything we say becomes a matter of record for anyone, and even then that record is decontextualized, photoshopped, or changed to create a false narrative. And those people are creating libels. That’s a crime. And in some respects, they’re not only turning opinions against you, and you’re losing followers based on these erroneous stories they are spreading around, but they tag social media influencers to amplify their message and they also tag your employers and fellow actors. So, they’re really having an effect on your ability to work and maintain your life. I can’t think of anything more insidious than that. I want to organize this endeavor, which has to be a group of ethical lawyers like yourself and tech people who can find these people, expose them or at least tell them–hey we know who you are, we know what you’re doing, and your name is going in a file, and if you persist with this behavior, someone is going to get sued. That’s a brainchild.
“This needs to be a thing of the past and it’s becoming habituated and we are now living in a culture of overt violence, which is excused by everybody.”
Pellegrino will resume his role as Lucifer in the final season of Supernatural which will release its final episodes later this year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic which delayed production of the series finale’s final episodes.