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A short film gets to the heart of being targeted by an internet mob

I Know You From Somewhere, a comedic short film written and directed by Andrew Fitzgerald, is an authentic example of the internet’s worst tendencies. The trouble starts offline: a young woman named Katherene gets in a screaming match with a friend about a cheating boyfriend. A stranger captures video of the dustup, including a moment in which Katherene accuses her friend of having a “black heart.” When the video is uploaded to YouTube, viewers mistake Katherene’s words for racial slurs, turning this average woman into the target of a humongous internet mob.

Fitzgerald was fascinated by what he calls undercurrents of hostility and condescension online. “Most of the internet looks like a digital version of a bathroom stall at a truckstop,” he says. Despite the pervasiveness of social media in modern life, he feels that media still hasn’t nailed how to portray it in on-screen fiction.

Fitzgerald has no firsthand experience with public shaming. He describes himself as more of a lurker than a social media user. Instead, he cites books like So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed and Terms of Service: Social Media and the Price of Constant Connection as inspiration. Of course, he notes, there’s no shortage of real-life examples, too, from Gamergate to the harassment of Leslie Jones on Twitter.

“There are still people thinking there's this divide between real life and digital life, where that's simply not the case anymore,” Fitzgerald says.

Despite its dark themes, I Know You From Somewhere is genuinely funny, a comedy paired with a bitter chaser. Fitzgerald’s credits include work on shows like Portlandia and Nathan for You, and his comedy pedigree shows. Katherene is a relatable character, pushed to extremes.

When the fallout of her video hits, you feel for her. She juggles the weight of internet hate mobs with one hand, while correcting people on the pronunciation of her name with the other. It would have been easy to lean into the drama of the situation, but to awkwardness underscores the inherent ridiculousness of the situation.

"The internet itself is such an absurd landscape,” Fitzgerald says. “That absurdity and humor often overlap. It's kind of like how watching a YouTube video works. You can look at a cat video or something and start scrolling through the comments, and eventually you'll end on just some racist, big rant — how quickly things just devolve into this mess online.”

The film is short, clocking in somewhere around 15 minutes, but I Know You From Somewhere is effective. As Katherene’s situation spiraled, I was struck by just how effectively the film captured the build of an internet mob: comments become tweets that inspire blog posts, and inevitably Katherene’s harassment trickles into real-life fear. She becomes wary of strangers whose gaze lingers a little too long.

The hate rapidly shifts from the video to comments on Kathrene’s gender and appearance. And when her former friend steps up to try and clarify that the clip was misunderstood, she too becomes the subject of vicious gendered and racial slurs. The video is merely a permission slip for strangers to attack these women.

By the film’s conclusion, the incident has forever changed Katherene’s life. Her name can’t be without a swam of info about the incident; she can’t interview for jobs without having to explain herself. Katherene is dehumanized and demonized by people who can’t even correctly pronounce her name, and don’t really know the true story behind the viral story that made her a social pariah.

I Know You From Somewhere is a work of fiction, but it feels all too real. It’s a cautionary tale that accurately depicts the struggle of regular people who have became a new sort of unwilling internet celebrity: the publicly shamed. If we’re ever going to disarm massive reflexive attacks, first, we need to take time to understand what we’re attacking. This sort of fictional explanation is a way to start.