Was Russian meddling in U.S. elections retaliation for doping accusations?
CLEMSON, South Carolina — New research exploring media coverage of a Russian doping scandal reveals how extensive reporting might have motivated cyberattacks aimed at affecting the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The research, published in Communication and Sport, examines journalistic and political fallout resulting from coverage of a scandal that tarnished Russia’s reputation in international sport.
Bryan Denham, chair of Clemson’s communication department and Campbell Professor of Sports Communication, who authored the article, said the situation serves as a prime example of how negative international press potentially can affect policy and political decisions. Denham said these negative reports hit Russian President Vladimir Putin especially hard because of his belief that success in sport symbolizes the power of a nation.
“The negative coverage called into question some of the political moves Putin and the Russian government made following the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi,” Denham said. “The fact that a former Russian official went public on the front page of The New York Times seemed to anger the Russian president and his ministers more than anything else.”
That former official was Grigory Rodchenkov, a chemist and former director of the Russian Anti-Doping Agency, who was the subject of a November 2015 report from the World Anti-Doping Agency. The report alleged Rodchenkov and his associates had designed a sophisticated doping program for Russian athletes, including those who competed in the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.
Russia won the most medals in Sochi, and shortly after the 2014 Winter Games, Putin capitalized on his popularity and ordered military forces to invade Ukraine, ultimately annexing the Crimean Peninsula. He also defied the West with actions in Syria.
Given the political volatility of the 2015 World Anti-Doping Agency report, Rodchenkov feared retribution and fled Russia for the U.S., eventually electing to go public in The New York Times. In a 2016 Times exposé, he discredited the performance of Russian athletes who competed in Sochi. According to Denham’s article, there was an eight-fold increase in references to Russian doping practices in The New York Times from 2015 to 2016, but reports were not exclusive to that newspaper.
“References to Rodchenkov and The New York Times exposé began to appear consistently in other news outlets as well,” Denham said. “For Russian officials, recurring references to the scandal may have seemed like a campaign to discredit both athletes and political leaders.”
Denham said that approximately one month following the May 2016 Times report on Rodchenkov, a computer hacker known as Guccifer 2.0 claimed credit for having breached the network of the Democratic National Committee. Additionally, after an investigation spurred by The New York Times resulted in more than 100 Russian athletes missing the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics, a group of hackers known as Fancy Bear exposed the medical files of U.S. athletes Simone Biles and Serena Williams.
However, news of a state-sponsored doping program in Russia actually did not originate in the United States. Denham said the news emerged on German public television in 2014. Documentarian Hajo Seppelt worked with two Russian whistleblowers, Vitaly Stepanov and Yuliya Stepanova, to expose systemic doping. The documentary, which did not receive attention in the U.S., led the World Anti-Doping Agency to begin investigating, and it ultimately led to Rodchenkov fleeing Russia.
As it happened, another documentary filmmaker, Bryan Fogel, helped Rodchenkov arrange a departing flight. Fogel kept cameras rolling as Rodchenkov effectively snuck out of Russia and he also recorded Rodchenkov meeting with reporters at The New York Times. The final product of his work, “Icarus,” premiered at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. It went on to win the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature at the recent Academy Awards ceremony.
“Icarus” was not the only big release in 2017. In January, a report from the United States National Intelligence Council concluded that high-profile doping charges were indeed one cause of the 2016 election cyberattacks. Denham said that although news coverage on these doping charges did not originate in the U.S., the extensive follow up from U.S. news sources could be felt in Russia’s response.
“Accurate, in-depth reporting wasn’t the cause of the cyberattacks on the U.S., but it can be argued that it elevated Russia’s response to the point that the response may have affected the presidential election,” Denham said.