Interview with Sarah Gancher

We got an opportunity to sit down with Sarah Gancher, playwright of Russian Troll Farm: A Workplace Comedy, to talk with her more about the genesis of the play, what trolling has done to society and where the world is going.

VINEYARD: Can you talk about how you first got interested in internet trolling and why you were attracted to write about it? 

SARAH GANCHER: I first got interested in this topic because the trolling in the 2016 campaign absolutely worked on me. I find it to be really terrifying. It’s terrifying because it’s incredibly successful. We humans are so susceptible to stories, which is what this play is about. In some other life where I wasn’t trying to be an artist, I would love to go back and look at the story of 2016 until now: Russian interference with American social media, Wikileaks, Hunter Biden’s laptop, Rudy Guilliani, “The big lie” of the supposedly stolen 2016 election, Q Anon, January 6th, the Russian invasion of Ukraine – This is all one story. This is the story of the blind man with the elephant, where one man is touching the trunk and saying it’s a tree, one man is touching the tail and saying it’s a snake. That’s the kind of fractured view that we have of the 2016 election because nobody has gotten out their push pins and their red yarn to make all of the connections yet. It’s actually all one story.

VINEYARD: You researched, found and included many real posts by Russian trolls in this play. Can you talk about the goals of these posts and how the professional trollers played with the idea of truth? How does trolling get us to participate in disinformation?  

SARAH GANCHER: I think a lot of people, when they hear the term online trolling, they think about something that’s just trying to make you mad. That is only part of it. Another really big part of it is people posting things that you already agree with or are inclined to accept or want to believe to reinforce your beliefs. The way that so many people receive news now from social media where they really just see something shocking, something distressing, something infuriating, something scary – and they look at it for a couple seconds and then they just post repost just because it’s something that they are inclined to believe.  I think it’s dangerous because you don’t know what you are spreading.

VINEYARD: At the heart of Russian Troll Farm is the continual dissolution of the meaning of the word “truth” – what is the play saying about the nature of truth in this age of “fake news”?  

SARAH GANCHER: There’s an old propaganda rule which was definitely followed by workers in the fake news office of the Internet Research Agency, and it’s called “The 60/40 Rule”. The idea is that you would post something that people are already inclined to agree with, and it’s going to be 60% real verifiable information and 40% not. And I have to stress that when truth is devalued, we lose the ability to get upset about the actual truth.

VINEYARD: An earlier version of Russian Troll Farm was produced online in the fall of 2020, and was one of the first digital theatre triumphs of the pandemic. What was it like to work in such a new medium — Zoom — on a play you had written for the stage?

SARAH GANCHER: I had really just finished the first draft of Russian Troll Farm in 2020 and I was racing to try to get it to someone to do it. We had a couple workshops lined up, fingers crossed. And then the shutdown happened and I was like, well, there goes that play.  But thank god that Jared Mezzocchi (multimedia artist) contacted me out of the blue about a different play and I was like, “No, I know what we should do!  Let’s do this!”  Russian Troll Farm was the play that I couldn’t stop researching and dreaming about.  And I thought it would be perfect for online.

VINEYARD: Russian Troll Farm could be seen as a period piece – what do you think was different about the world in 2016 vs today? 

SARAH GANCHER: There was a strong push in social media towards squashing misinformation up until about a year ago. And then it got consciously gutted by a lot of these companies, most famously Elon Musk’s Twitter (now X.) Then there’s also been pressure from right wing politicians who believe social media fact checkers have a left-wing bias. I think over half of the world is going to elect leaders this year, and we’ve never been less prepared. There are state sponsored trolls all over the world—not just coming from Russia but from China, Iran, all over the place. The world electorate has never been more vulnerable.  

VINEYARD: So what’s the future hold for the world of trolling?  

SARAH GANCHER: Trolling is an area that’s completely ripe for AI use because there’s such a focus on volume. The quality of the post does not need to be very high. If trolling can be automated, that works great for the people that are running these coordinated trolling campaigns. And what is most interesting, and chilling too, is the possibility that AI might be able to tailor its troll posts to you and to everything that it knows about you. And I think that it has never been more important for people to become more literate about social media and about what they’re looking at online. 

VINEYARD: What can we do to help the world and avoid being trolled?

SARAH GANCHER: A thing that drives me up the wall is that every time that I go on Meta, I’m paying Mark Zuckerberg to make me mad. I’m paying him to make me mad. I’m paying him to make me feel really sad. I’m paying him to make me feel jealous. I’m paying him to make me feel shame, right? I’m paying him to make me feel bad about myself. And thanks for the cat videos. 

Here’s what I think individuals can do. Quit or severely limit your social media. Get your news from real news, or if you’re going to get some news from social media, you need to supplement it with something that is being fact-checked and verified by people. And I think be in community with people in person. I think we have to resist the idea that complexity doesn’t exist and that nuance doesn’t exist. 

VINEYARD: What about those of us who can’t quit it or don’t want to? Is there any hope for us in the social media addicted camp?

SARAH GANCHER: If you believe that the mark of intelligence is being able to hold two contradictory ideas at once, then you should really believe that. I feel like so much of the time, people, especially on the left, say they believe that. And then when push comes to shove and it comes down to it and some kind of internet dog fight, that idea goes out the window and it’s like, no, you have to agree with me. Or you’re evil. I think that real honest and open-hearted conversation where you are willing to change your mind and somebody else is willing to change their mind, or at least just to hear the other person is incredibly important. And I think that that feels to me like a step that individuals can take in their lives to avoid the kind of mob mentality that can happen on the internet and the kind of influence where you’re getting swept out to sea ideologically without even realizing it – and where the sea might not even be real. The sea might be an illusion. 

And I think if you see someone posting bullshit, don’t be scared, call them on it. It’s scary, but you should try because you’ll regret it if you don’t.