Special promotional content provided by Forward Theater Company
By Mike Fischer for Forward Theater Company
Set in 2016 at the St. Petersburg Internet (Real) Research Agency, Sarah Gancher’s Russian troll farm – receiving its stage premiere at the Forward Theater from April 21 to May 8 – is a dark workplace comedy starring five Russian trolls spew electronic disinformation into the American political psyche.
I will introduce them in a moment.
But since Gancher’s play is about the tension between the truths we need and the stories we dream of, let’s start with some facts, courtesy of historian Timothy Snyder’s disturbing book, The road to unfreedom.
5.8 million fake accounts; he later concluded that nearly 60 million in-game accounts in November were fake. Only six of the many sites generated by the Internet Research Agency in 2016 had more than 340 million shares each.
In the weeks leading up to Trump’s election, Twitter bots generated 20% of American conversations about politics. Following Trump’s election, Twitter identified 50,000 Russian bots as well as nearly 4,000 Internet Research Agency accounts. About three million hostile Russian tweets were then taped and saved.
There is more.
Internet Research Agency trolls have encouraged Americans to participate in extremist-themed public events. The Russians placed 3,000 ads on Facebook, then promoted them as memes on Instagram; they were seen by nearly six million Americans. In swing states like Wisconsin, these ads targeted people who might be influenced by anti-Muslim messages.
Why were so many Americans sensitive to the fake populism served up by these trolls?
“The Russian effort was successful,” Snyder writes, “because the United States is much more like the Russian Federation than Americans would like to think.” “Authoritarianism happens,” Snyder continues, “not because people say they want it, but because they lose the ability to distinguish between facts and desires.”
In short, one of the reasons the 2016 Russian propaganda campaign was successful in electing an American president was that the Russians who engineered it understood and could exploit American needs. As Gancher’s shiny piece clearly shows, our apparent enemy is like us.
From Russia with love
It’s no wonder, then, that the hilarious opening scene of Russian troll farm suggests not so much austere apparatchik stereotypes as workplace comedy like Officewith its petty plots, simmering romances and seemingly disconnected bosses.
Resisting a midlife crisis, Nikolai imagines himself as the writer he never became. Egor, his polar opposite, is the reincarnation of Dwight Schrute. Newly arrived Masha tries to make sense of her morally suspect job in order to bury the idealist she once was. Old-style Ljuba longs for a mythical Soviet past; Xenophobe Steve dreams of a glorious Russian future inspired by Putin.
Gancher makes it clear that even a frenzied (and toxically funny) hater like Steve is simply looking for a reason to hope, to live, and to love — while desperately wanting to believe that his work, however retrograde or seemingly meaningless, has a purpose.
These five trolls don’t just make up stories for American consumption. In a play that Gancher describes as “all about our addiction to stories,” they also live in and for their own stories.
These stories are about sex and love in a world where we are often alone. The imagined communities we never had and the idealized families we conjure up as substitutes. Those things that bump into each other in the night, and the heroes we create to banish them. Our fear of death and our presentiments of immortality.
Who tells the story ?
“We all constantly choose the story we want to tell. Of ourselves, of our world,” observes Masha. room.
Moving from work comedy to Kafkaesque nightmare and from revenge tragedy to comic fantasy, Russian troll farm canals Brecht: Gancher emphasizes that the narrative is always already a construction. We may live our lives in a story, but each of those stories is fiction, reflecting our hopes and dreams.
By deconstructing the degraded fictions that we increasingly accept as fact, Russian troll farm also has a lot to say about why such illusions come true and how fake news comes true in an America that, Steve rightly notes, is “full of primal, pent-up hate”, easily exploited by trolls like himself. .
Gancher breaks down why we waste time indulging in fantasies on social media instead of reading a good book or spending time with the people we love. More moving, it takes up a common thread that runs through much of his work by probing the authentic appeal of nostalgia.
Nothing is ever more cherished than what we no longer possess; the nostalgic, writes the late Russian essayist Svetlana Boym, are mythmakers imagining that one could “rebuild the lost house”, restore the Russian empire. Or make America “great” again.
Will we passively accept these and other stories we are fed on, living our lives in master narratives we did not write while allowing their authors to script our destiny and write our end? Or will we insist on making our own contributions to more inclusive and open stories that reflect all that we and those we love are and could yet become?
If we live in history – and if compelling stories can change our lives and the world – we bear immense responsibility for the stories we tell, follow and spread on the world stage. What role will we play in making and maintaining them?
Russian troll farm will not offer easy answers to this daunting question. But Gancher’s play will challenge us to ask it, rigorously and repeatedly, so that we can think more and better about the stories we read and the ones we write, the lives we live and the future we we imagine.
The fate of democracy hangs in the balance. In Ukraine. And in Wisconsin.
For more information about and tickets to Russian troll farmto visit https://forwardtheater.com/.