Ariella Steinhorn is the CEO and Founder at Lioness. Lioness is a storytelling platform and new media company that brings forward stories about encounters with power. Ariella has guided hundreds of whistleblowers, former employees, and others through the process of bringing their story forward in the press and to the public, and has broken non-disclosure agreements herself to change culture through stories.
In this episode Ariella discusses:
You're listening to Reckoning, the go-to resource for conversations about gender-based safety, survival, and resilience in the digital age. Reckoning is brought to you by Garbo. Garbo is on a mission to help proactively prevent harm in the digital age, through technology, tools, and education. I'm Kathryn Kosmides, the founder and CEO of Garbo and your host for each episode. In the interest of safety, I want to provide a content warning for listeners as we do discuss some hard subjects in each episode. So please use your own discretion when listening, you can learn more about Garbo and our guests by visiting our website at https://www.garbo.io Thank you so much for being here and listening to this episode.
Ariella Steinhorn is the CEO and Founder at Lioness, a new media company that helps people bring forward stories about Power. Lioness works frequently with whistleblowers, bringing forward sensitive information about powerful people or corporations, including former Blue Origin, Apple, and Better.com employees. In 2018, Ariella co-founded Simone, which was an organization that connected workers with employment lawyers. And in past lives, Ariella was the youngest communications hire at Uber, and then went on to lead policy, corporate, and internal communications at subsidiaries of Ford Motor Company and WeWork. In college, Ariella interned as a speechwriter for Attorney General Eric Holder, and grew up training as a dancer with the Washington Ballet. Ariella has guided hundreds of people through the process of bringing their story forward in the press, and has personally broken nondisclosure agreements to change culture through stories.
KATHRYN: For starters, you founded Lioness, which is a very unique media company that we've personally done a lot of work with. I've seen you grow the organization in many different ways over the last few years. So, can you tell us a little bit about what Lioness is and how you founded the organization?
ARIELLA: Sure. First of all, thank you so much for having me as a guest. So, Lioness was founded at the end of 2019–great time to start a business a couple months before a global pandemic. But it is a new media company that tells stories about power. And it initially started as this place for people who had sensitive stories to come to before they went to a journalist. So, we initially started with tech employees because that's where my network was. And if people had a story about something bad that was going on in a workplace that they needed to draw attention to publicly, they could come to us. We would help them strategize on who to bring the story to, what elements they needed to actually make it newsworthy and well-evidenced, and then bring that story to journalists. The idea being that sometimes you do try to create change from the inside and that can work, but then sometimes it doesn't work. It falls on deaf ears, and the only way to go about bringing the change that you wanna see, or just to seeking the justice that you wanna achieve is to go public, and bring that story, that reality, to the court of public opinion. So, initially it was just this experiment realizing that what journalists really wanted to be hearing from was information from sources. And people had this desire sometimes to go to the media. So, we were catching all of these stories, and bringing them to the public in that way. And then, in the process, we realized that there were some stories that were just so sensitive that some media wouldn't even pursue them sometimes because of the anonymous sourcing and being a bit, you know? Some of these stories are taking on powerful people and powerful entities. So we started publishing on our own platform these first person narratives where we would ghost write the stories with people, fact check them, and then publish them. We have media insurance, we act as a publisher, and then oftentimes mainstream news would cover those stories. So it's an interesting niche and an interesting space to fill. I don't know if it's been done in the past or if anyone else is doing it now, but that's what we do.
KATHRYN: No, it's incredible. And to see the path that it's taken–you've told some really big stories or helped tell some really big stories against some really, really powerful people. And like you said, even if they are first, just published on your own platform, it has been picked up by major publications. And you're building your own credibility in that way, in telling these stories. So, it's interesting to see that there's this need for this now, if that makes sense. I think telling stories, or some people will say “whistleblowing”, was looked at with huge disdain and super frowned upon. If we remember early “whistleblowers” even in the 2000s, in the internet era, they're in hiding and it didn't go well for them. But now I would say at least once a week, there's a big story being told by an employee at a company, especially in the tech industry, like you mentioned. So, where do you think that this courage to tell these stories is coming from for the people that you work with? And why are we having this reckoning around “whistleblowing” and transparency within organizations?
ARIELLA: Yeah. Well, I think there are a few things going on. One is that people have been, for a while, but they're increasingly more and more fed up with hypocrisy. And when the external image projected by a company or a person doesn't match what's going on behind closed doors, and of course there always has to be somewhat of a facade with anything that you build and an aspirational story that you want to tell before it becomes real. But I think that people are really fed up with the dissonance between sometimes the public story that's being told and the private happenings behind closed doors. With all this information abundance–we live in this era where we can know everything about everything because people are sharing things. There are so many platforms. And so, the illusions of what we thought was happening are all being shattered, and we're all just creating this realness in the world. So I think that's a strain that's running through the culture. I also think that people certainly are extremely ethical who do this, and they have principles and standards, but sometimes it just comes from a selfish place of not wanting to get into trouble because the whistleblowers are being told to do something that they feel could get them into trouble with the government or the public. So, it's them covering their own asses, or people just selfishly wanting justice. The reason that I use the word “selfish” is that while it is a selfless act in many ways, that you put yourself out there, it's very lonely, you open yourself up to getting sued, to all this scrutiny, to all of this criticism for basically saying, “This is the reality and I'm the lone person who's going to say it.” There’s also—I also want to make these people relatable, that they're not just these always totally righteous people who don't have depth to them. They sometimes just feel scared or they feel passionate about having justice. And everyone has felt that feeling at some point of wanting to seek justice for themselves in a relationship, in a workplace, in their earning potential in society. That's a universal feeling that some people who become whistleblowers just channel into going big, and telling that story, and being very bold in that way.
KATHRYN: It's interesting that you touch on the reasons why people go about telling their stories and going to the media. Like you said, it's not always totally altruistic, right? And I think that I'm so glad in your work that you humanize people on both sides of the story: the person telling the story, but also oftentimes even the person perpetuating the harm. Like you said, there is this aspirational story that we often have to tell and sometimes we don't even realize–and I, not we–but companies I think don't even realize the harm that they're causing internally. I don't know if you just saw, the recent one with Launch House and the sexual assault and harassment allegations that just came out about that. That's real harm, right? Like that is real harm that is happening, and I'm so proud of the people who do speak up because it is potentially very risky, like you mentioned, and very lonely and things like that when this does happen. And so, when someone comes to you with a story–let's kind of dive into that a little bit. How do people get to you, find you, come to you with a story and then how do you, it's hard to say, decide which stories to tell or how to help them navigate these systems? But it's complicated, I'm sure.
ARIELLA: Definitely. And there's no playbook really. I think people have wanted more formal playbooks, but it's so unique to the person. It's so unique to the entity or the person they're speaking up about. It's so unique to their personalities. So, people find us in a variety of ways. I mean, one is just the old fashioned “whisper network” of friends of theirs have worked with us in the past and then they're venting to their friend or colleague one day about something and their friend says, “Oh, well you should talk to these people Lioness because if you wanna tell this story, they would be the ones to help you get it out.” So that's been nice to see that it's been very organic, people just talking about it amongst themselves. We've done some earned media and that has led to some inbound as well. We've done some campaigns around reviewing people's NDAs. We have a number of law firm partners, so we'll offer free reviews of people's NDAs. So that's been a way that people have come through. Basically sometimes they're on the fence about whether they wanna break their NDA or sign an NDA. So it's all of those ways. And we don't have a big social media presence actually, which is something that we're working on. And then, in terms of how we work with them and the differences in their stories, it's so dependent on that person's personality and motivations. And sometimes, I do think there are people who come to us and they say, Well, can you tell me exactly what will happen if I do this? And that's never good, because there's so many permutations of what can happen. We can go all Nathan Fielder with them and plan out all the different, rehearse all of the different options.
KATHRYN: Can you imagine rehearsing for a whistleblowing?
ARIELLA: New show idea for CNN? But truly, the outcomes are so vast and different, and we do try to prepare for all of them, but if someone's like, “You need to tell me what's gonna happen.” We're hesitant to work with them in a way because we can't predict the future. And we can tell them that the one thing we will do is have their back should they get sued for breaching an NDA or sued for defamation. Luckily that's never happened with any of our stories before, though. We've gotten legal threats and people we've worked with have gotten legal threats, but ultimately, we call their bluff and they back down. But, we say, “We'll have your back.” And a lot of times if a person tells a story or many people tell a story and then they're sued for breach of their NDA, that in and of itself becomes the story of “Why is social media platform x, which purports to be about free speech and free expression, suing this person who worked for them for telling their experience about something?” And then that becomes the story which the companies don't really want. I guess if it's a more faceless company, like an insurance company, maybe wouldn't care about doing it, but it's the more mission driven companies that I think would hesitate to sue because of how that would look on them to take on the little guy. The David versus Goliath fight. So, there's so many considerations and legal optics like cyber security, physical security that you have to talk through with people and just say, “Here's what you have to consider. We're here for you, but we can't predict the future.”
KATHRYN: And I think that you're so right in the way in which it can go. I have a lot of friends and associates and even myself a little bit telling my story publicly and going through that experience and seeing their experiences. You don't know if the media is really gonna take it up and care, right? And you may have sacrificed–it's hard to fall on a sword–yourself and you're like, “Oh my God, this is everything to me, telling this story to the survivor of the experience, the whistleblower itself.” But then if it doesn't get the attention that they thought it would, or that super gets swept under the rug, or people are too afraid to tell the story. No media publication is gonna pick it up. I think preparing people for all of the potential outcomes is some of the most important work that you do. But when you do decide to start working with someone, and you're starting to dive into their experience and gather facts, obviously they're coming from a place of high emotion and pain and things like that. So how do you separate that emotion from fact and then dive into being able to help them tell their stories and gather that evidence that is so important to journalists? Journalists do want well researched stories that they feel confident in telling. So how do you navigate that?
ARIELLA: So if there is a legal case in play, luckily the lawyers have already assembled so much of that evidence and so much of that documentation that it's really helpful for us. And even from a publisher perspective, it always helps to be able to link to a public record, a lawsuit, a police report, because then as publishers you're protected from defamation suits. So that is always helpful if they've done that legwork. But yeah, it definitely is. I think that more so than lawyers, we do have to play a bit of a role of confidant friend therapists sometimes in a way-not that we're licensed psychologists. But you just really wanna be there to hear that person out, let them say their peace and say, “I hear you.” And then, follow that up with, “Well, you know, let's talk about what we have to actually contextualize this to back this up, to make this really real for people.” And it's very different. There are two ways to break it down. One is if you say, “this happened”, it's definitely better to have more documentation than not, or other witnesses or something that we can draw from. But then, if it's more of like a, “I felt this way”, that's actually what's more powerful and you don't need, in my opinion, you don't need anything to back up how you felt. And we really try to get into that with people. Why were you feeling that way? What happened in the past and in that present, and then in the weeks following whatever happened, take us through the ebbs, flows, and motions. It's not one static emotion. People feel a barrage of changing feelings. So that's something that we go through with people as well. But it's a very time intensive process. You get to know people very intimately and I feel grateful that a lot of people trust us with that information. Some of the deepest, darkest, most intimate things that have ever happened to them. But it's also such an important part to humanize them. And that's part of what we're doing. We're not investigative journalists and that’s just like, this happened and this happened and this happened. We really want to tell a story about something that's connected to a broader social issue through the lens of the individual, because we believe that individual people matter. And, that is, I think the difference in what we do, to where it's not all fluff, but it's also very humanizing and drawing out the different threads of emotions that people are feeling and context to really build them up as a human being and not just this timeline.
KATHRYN: And that emotional work is, like I said, I think the unique piece that you bring is that human aspect to the work, to whistleblowing. It's not just, “Hey, very legal, with a lawyer or even with just a journalist who's like, ‘facts, facts, facts’”. It's like here's a safe space almost to heal a little bit and start to process what happened to you and have some level of external validation or even interpretation of the experience. And some people go really public, right? They put their name on it and everyone in it, but others post anonymously or choose to go off the record. They don't feel comfortable. Or maybe they post it anonymously and years later they are willing to say, “This was me.” How do you work with people or tell them the options that they have in terms of concealing their identity and what are the implications if they choose to go either way? Is it more weight on the story if they choose to use their real identity?
ARIELLA: Yeah, I mean, from a journalistic perspective, obviously it's always easier for the publisher, whether it's us or a news outlet, if they put their name on it because that then shifts it onto the person a bit more than just the publisher vouching for this anonymous person. But I think it really does depend on the person and their goals. For some people, they just want to tell the story and they don't wanna make it about themselves, which I think is powerful in that a lot of criticisms that whistleblowers get–and you even saw this with the Twitter whistleblower from this month who blew the whistle and all on these lax security practices that Twitter was having, people were trying to dig up dirt about him and asking, “Well, is he craving attention?” “Is he doing this for fame, for publicity?”
KATHRYN: There were articles where people were reaching out to them willing to pay thousands of dollars to his network to get on the phone with them to get dirt on him.
ARIELLA: That article in the New Yorker and one of the questions that they asked was, “Is he a person psychologically who wants attention?” And that I think is what's used oftentimes to criticize the person who's speaking up and say, “Oh, this person just wants fame or attention and to feel special and have their moment in the limelight.” So obviously when you're anonymous, it's not about that at all. It's more about this story and it's not about the person, it's about the entity or the person they're speaking about, or it's about the broader social issue, or they wanna help other people feel less alone and tell their experience as a way to heal them and bring in others who have felt a similar way. So I think that's powerful. It can be difficult because you wanna have enough specifics and identifying details in their story if they're anonymous, to make it feel really real and obviously factual, but you don't wanna let on so much that you inadvertently reveal the identity of that person. I also respect people wanting to put their names on it because it's brave and it's scary and it makes it much easier for the journalist to be able to name that person and go into their backstory and history. But it does open people up to a lot more scrutiny from the public. So I think that usually people are very strong about putting their names on it or not putting their names on it. It's actually wishy washy. People come in with a pretty firm idea of what they want to do and then I think for some of the anonymous people, as you say, down the line that could be something that they put their name on.
KATHRYN: I think it's interesting who kind of gets centered in these stories, in telling them. And it's so funny that it's often–even in this Twitter one–the character that's whistleblowing, the whistleblower gets more evaluation, scrutiny, and attention than what they're talking about. Twitter lacks security practices and things like that. I think we're focusing on the wrong thing. But there are, as we kind of mentioned, consequences or potential consequences, to these things, to telling your story, especially putting your name on it–and you mentioned a little bit of seeing that like, “Oh, do you wanna become famous or build a career off of this?” We're seeing a lot of people assuming that, “Oh, they're doing this because they want to be famous, and tell their story, and build some sort of entrepreneurship–like their own brand–essentially by whistleblowing.” And I definitely don't think that's the case because when you see the reality of what's actually happening, these people who are sacrificing themselves, there are usually a ton of consequences, especially if they're not technically seen as legally whistleblowers, right? They just told their story, and didn't go through some formal process to be identified truly as a whistleblower. They are sued for defamation or retaliated against by their employer or future employers, whatever it may be. We're even seeing this with–there's a lot of laws being passed across the US right now about enabling survivors to sue their abusers, right? In the same kind of context or tell their stories more and have accountability, and things like that. But what we're seeing a lot is the exact opposite where the survivor who is strong enough to tell their story, trying to prevent harm from happening, whether that's in the workplace or in a relationship, they're actually then being sued. So you see the Johnny Depp and Amber Heard trial, and many other similar ones happening, against especially high profile men. Can you talk a little bit about what are the true legal risks? What are the potential really bad things that could happen to someone? How in telling their story, if someone is listening to this thinking about the pros and cons of this process and kind of thinking through that.
ARIELLA: Yeah, there are a lot of risks for sure, and it is a pretty masochistic thing to do if you think about it. Even if you do get renowned, you were treated as a pariah. A lot of your former colleagues won't wanna talk to you. I've heard people say that their colleagues have said, “Hey, why did you not just work this out in therapy?” “Why'd you have to bring this to the public?” “There's something wrong with you?”, that's a common refrain. So it's very alienating. It's very isolating. It's not pleasant. It's not a pleasant way to go about becoming famous. So in terms of the legal risks–say you are breaking an NDA, as an example, or you signed a settlement agreement and you do decide to break that, you may have to return or the company can try to compel you to return the severance money that they paid you and then also charge you additional. They can basically say to you, “For each breach of your settlement agreement or NDA, you owe us additional money.” Which is crazy. If it's this one individual versus a giant company or well funded tech startup or a corporation having to pay that entity back. But that's just what it is. Legally, if they do breach that.
KATHRYN: Well, it's so funny that it's financial, right? Which it says, “Well, wealthy people can whistleblow much easier than those most impacted”, right? That's insane.
ARIELLA: Totally. Yeah. I mean, but even people who are more well off than not-I remember speaking to a woman who sold her small real estate company to a giant real estate corporation, and even with her, she was like, “I have a ton saved up, but it could be hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees” or “It adds up, the money that you have to pay in the court system.” It is financial, but financial also of course impacts psychological and physical, right? If you don't have a home or if you can't afford to pay for a home anymore, that is both a physical and a psychological issue. If you don't have health insurance anymore, think about how your employment is tied to your health. Your health insurance is tied to your employment. So people are really putting their beings at risk to do this thing. And that's from an employment standpoint, when it comes to relationships and just talking about experiences that people had with other people. Like, yeah, the defamation risk is there too. And the laws in the US are very in favor of–well, actually they're better than in other countries. That's what was so funny about the Amber Heard trial, is that in the UK she ended up prevailing and they have stricter libel and defamation laws. And in the US she ended up being found libel for defamation. And, because in the US what you have to do with a public figure is you have to prove something called “actual malice” that you knowingly, the publisher or you the source, the person telling the story knowingly said something untrue about someone, which is a hard thing to prove, right? With the Depp-Heard trial, I think it was different because there was so much media fanfare, and there the court of public opinion really took over what happened. And even if the jury was technically not supposed to see what was happening they weren't sequestered. It was impossible not to see that trial. It was the biggest trial since O.J. Simpson. Everyone was talking about it and it was televised and on TikTok and everywhere. So, generally it is very hard to prove that. It's unlikely that someone who's telling a sensitive story has a text that says, “Hey, I know I'm lying about this person, but I'm going to do it anyway.” That's unlikely. Most people don't do that, first of all. And if they were to, they wouldn't put that in writing. But even so, if the case could get thrown out, a person can still start that process of suing and then you have to hire a lawyer.
KATHRYN: And it's expensive. Then just put you through these hoops that you have to jump through. And so, let's talk a little bit about the court of public opinion, which is a whole other side of this, which is new in whistleblowing, right? The internet, Twitter mobs, and now TikTok. The explosion of that with the Depp-Heard trial. We're seeing that the court of public opinion really sways the narrative, right? It doesn't matter what actually happens even in the court case or in whatever, it matters what the public thinks of it. And I think that we're seeing this big movement, this big push. I think post the Me Too movement, where we saw a lot of whistleblowing happening, especially in powerful men around sexual abuse allegations. I think that did push this whole movement forward of telling these types of stories, but now you're seeing a big backlash to that of saying, “Well, we're just going to discredit all of these people, and attacking them personally again. Focusing on the person telling the story, much less than the harm perpetuated that they're talking about. And so, to witch things, how can we focus on the good things that come out of it–and maybe the court of public opinion is a strong factor on it. But, how can someone help control their own narrative as it gets out there and make a real impact with telling their story?
ARIELLA: Yeah. Well, I think writing in the first person–and that's why we chose to go down that path is very, I hate this word, but “empowering”. What's a better word for that? Just “validating”, “vindicating”? People like the ability to say something in their own words. And, so I think that helps a lot of people feel like they have agency over what happened and what will happen by being able just to say it in their own words. And certainly that can be picked up on by the media and analyzed by the media, but just that ability to write it out or talk it out, I think is very cathartic for people. I'm very happy that all of the people who we've worked with and published essays with, I think they would say they're better off having published that essay and told their story than not, which is rare. That's not usually the case. But I think for them there's something just– imagine you are being told for months or years that your reality is well evidenced or simply just a thing that you feel is not valid. So when you are able then to bring that reality outside of an organization or a place that is served by ignoring your reality, and you bring that out and other people acknowledge your reality as their reality too, it feels really good. You just feel so seen and understood. Just imagine being so misunderstood for so long. And then finally feeling understood. So this feeling of not being alone in an experience, of having someone acknowledge what you felt or what you observed as real, that's a really powerful feeling just in helping people heal and move forward in their lives. And I think it imbues them with more confidence. I think it makes everyone just feel more like a human being and an individual than some shit disturber, some mischievous tell tale at a company or in a relationship. So I think that there's a lot of good that does come from it in that people can reclaim their own identities a little bit through the storytelling and then also connect with other people who have been through something similar and who can validate what they've been through. I think that's something that's really hard to do in court or in the legal system because it's very black and white and a lot of the world is more gray than that. And being able to tell your story and just connect with people on a human psychological level is–I think it helps people just feel seen in a way that you can't really do in the court system, in the legal system.
KATHRYN: That's so powerful. And even saying, “The world is gray”, right? It's not black and white and people aren't good or bad. We always say this in our own work, and I think people want that “good, bad, pass, fail.” Can I let them into my community? Or should I go on a date with them? And it is much more complicated than that and we've all done bad things. These whistleblowers have done things they're not proud of and vice versa. And I think that's what's beautiful about the work that you do, is you try and tap into all of that nuance, all of the gray because you have to be able to live in the gray to be able to really understand the world that we live in, especially today in this ever increasingly digital age. So as we kinda end the conversation today if people have a story to tell, but they don't wanna do it publicly–like they did see something happen or something, had an experience happen to them, but they want to warn others about either an individual or an organization, which I'm sure they're very different, that that harm is happening. Are there any best practices? We've seen attempts to formalize “whisper networks”. As you mentioned earlier, we saw things like the “shitty media and men list” or “shitty media men list”, which ended in lawsuits and even some of the work that we do here, and stuff to try and help people warn others about the harm that someone or an organization is causing. What can they do, especially, if they are a vulnerable person? Whether that's a woman or someone who doesn't have financial power to come with these legal bills if they tell anyone, even just tell their friends. So are there any best practices for not going public, but still wanting to tell people about some of the harm that has happened to them to prevent it from happening to others?
ARIELLA: Yeah, it's a great question. I think that there's always power in numbers. So say we've had situations where there are a few women who have had the same experience with a man or a number of employees who have had an experience with a boss. And when you go together, you can also preserve your anonymity and still each present your own experiences and kernels of evidence. But in a way there's this thing that happened and I'm providing an anecdote to a reporter without necessarily making it about me. It's sort of like, “Oh, here's an anecdote that is just one piece of this broader tapestry of a story.” And that is something reporters are very open to. They'll talk with you off the record if you want that initially, and then on background, which basically means that what you tell them can be used to inform a story, but it's not going to be attributed to you. So that is an option for a lot of people too. And the more people come together, unless it's a very specific story to one person, but if people have had similar experiences across the board, like it's a serial offender, a guy who does one thing to all the women–we had one example of a guy who pretended to have terminal cancer, and would have women fly him out to different hotels to where he was allegedly having treatment, which was not actually happening. But anyway, they all had a similar experience with him, so they can all say this thing happened to us, and they don't have to make it about them, but it can be more about the number of people he's impacted, the weird type of thing that he was doing. And then that is powerful too. So not necessarily about the one human being, the one woman, or the one storyteller, but just more about the story and the breadcrumbs of evidence that make up a powerful story. So it's totally an option for people, and I can understand why people would wanna do that.
We hope you enjoyed this conversation. If you're interested in learning more about the topics discussed in this episode or about our guests, visit our website at https://www.garbo.io Now available: Garbo's new kind of online background check makes it easy to see if someone in your life has a history of causing harm while balancing privacy and protection in the digital age. This episode was produced by Imani Nichols, with whisper and mutter. I'm Kathryn Kosmides and I look forward to having you join us for the next episode of Reckoning.