Hardly any other disease or health care crisis of the past decades had led to a rise of conspiracy theories comparable to that of the COVID-19 pandemic, with many COVID-19-related theories being spread over social networks like an “infodemic”, ie, a separate pandemic of social moods accompanying the COVID-19 pandemic [1–6]. It was found in several countries that different SARS-CoV-2 vaccination campaigns suffered seriously due to the spread of conspiracy beliefs and related social resistance [7–10].
Some scientists, scholars, and noted political figures, including Sucharit Bhakdi [11,12], Marc Siegel , Slavoj Žižek , and Klaus Martin Schwab , believe that the growth of COVID-19-related conspiracy theories against COVID-19 vaccination may be accounted for by allegedly inconsistent public policy. However, most researchers note that the enormous surge of conspiracy ideas may be well explained by unprecedented levels of globalisation [16,17], digitisation , cultural unification , diminished levels of information quality/controllability in pandemic times , “bloggification” (the emergence of an almost endless amount of sources of information and centres of ideological influence on the Internet: personal blogs, independent media, independent health care experts, etc.) , and distrust towards the public policy . Social media has been a useful vehicle for the instantaneous spread of conspiracy ideas about COVID-19 vaccination across huge audiences, a phenomenon that was not a feature of former epidemics, pandemics, or health care crises.
Thus far, there were contradictory suggestions in Russian media on the role of conspiracy ideas in impeding the Russian vaccination campaign. The RBC media agency assumed that conspiracy theories played a significant role in it , while Moscow24 declined it . We believe that understanding if the relatively low vaccination rates in Russia (69 539 763 persons as of January 25, 2022, or 47.7% ) are related to the support of conspiracy theories by the general population is a crucial factor for the total success of the Russian vaccination campaign.
INFLUENCE OF CONSPIRACY BELIEFS ON THE RUSSIAN VACCINATION CAMPAIGN
Through autumn and winter 2021, we carried out a biosocial survey via the Russian social network VKontakte (“In Contact”) to assess the role of conspiracy ideas in hampering SARS-CoV-2 vaccination. A thorough description of the surveying methodology may be found in our study devoted to another research goal . There were 5822 respondents in total.
Around 54% of the individuals cautious about vaccination were found to support one or more conspiracy beliefs, or around one-fifth of the total sample set. Their geographical distribution is more or less even across different regions of Russia (all 85 Russian regions were represented in the survey but to a different degree) and there is no significant correlation between their place of residence and the local vaccination rate (Pearson correlation coefficient C = 0.1583 at P ≤ 0.3042). That makes Russia a country with one of the highest levels of support for COVID-19-related conspiracy beliefs [26–29]. Russian conspiracists are mainly people in their twenties (mean age 26.2 ± 6.6 years old, 95% CI, P = 0.05).
The content analysis allowed us to find basic characteristics of pandemic-related conspiracy beliefs and their connection with persistent media narratives, including social media. They are summarised in Table 1. Figure 1 demonstrates support of different conspiracist ideas. One can see that some conspiracy theories are universal, and others are specific to Russia.
Table 1. COVID-19-related media narratives, COVID-19-related conspiracy theories and corresponding mistrustful health behavioural responses that may be found in Russia*
*The correspondence is made based on content analysis of the posts placed in Russian social network VKontakte by COVID-19-related conspiracists.
†The number corresponds with the rank of frequency of occurrence of a conspiracy belief in the Russian population (Figure 1).
Figure 1. Percentage of support for different conspiracy theories in the group of “believers” in conspiracy ideas (1323 persons).
We found that different conspiracy ideas were strongly interconnected. Table S in the Online Supplementary Document provides pairwise coefficients of correlation.
A considerable part of conspiracy beliefs leads to strong social resistance to COVID-19 vaccination campaigns in Russia. These beliefs are dangerous, as they may potentially undermine the effectiveness of a whole set of health care measures aimed at stopping the disease in the country, especially in the current situation of the fifth wave of the pandemic, caused primarily by the Omicron strain of SARS-CoV-2.
From Table 1 and Figure 1 (red segment), we see that a considerable part of conspiracy beliefs spread across the Russian society is concerned with the forthcoming introduction of the nationwide vaccination certification/verification system based on QR codes. Initially, the launch of the national QR code-based system was planned for February 2022. However, after many critical remarks from numerous health care experts, social organisations, religious organisations, non-governmental organisations, research institutions, and the general population, the parliamentary bill was returned to the government for improvement.
The objections to the QR code-based system form a separate important niche in the set of Russian conspiracy beliefs. They span twenty-two items and include moral, legal, economic, financial, social, infrastructural, political, philosophic, and aesthetic considerations.
The main factors of relatively low vaccination rates in Russia are social, not medical. Many young people are more concerned with ensuring democracy, guaranteeing their rights of antagonism towards vaccination, and sustaining an open society than the national health or other medical considerations. A good approach may be demonstrating to them that their personal demands of securing their rights lead to violation of the rights of others, the rights of epidemiological safety, and diminishing COVID-19-related burdens.
While merely 16% of the sample set had doubts related to vaccine safety, 42% demonstrated at least a cautious attitude towards vaccination. Almost 23% of respondents supported one or more conspiracy ideas regarding the Russian COVID-19 vaccination campaign. These persistent beliefs in insidious social/political actors that allegedly use COVID-19 vaccination for achieving their pernicious goals are based upon psychological uncertainty and social fears associated with pandemic times. Even though many conspiracy ideas relate to vaccination only indirectly (Table 1), they do impede the Russian vaccination campaign, as our survey showed (strong interconnectedness of beliefs shown in Table S, Online Supplementary Document).
Therefore, we suggest the following measures for authorities that may increase the propensity of the Russian population to get vaccinated and dampen the fears that nourish conspiracist ideas:
- Increasing informational transparency and informational quality of media coverage of the Russian vaccination campaign;
- Encouraging participation of society in open debates about vaccination;
- Promoting information about vaccines in social networks, effectively elevating vaccine uptake;
- Supporting dialogue with religious and social organisations;
- Ensuring self-control, self-criticism, and feedback based on sentiments of the Russian society regarding vaccination – these sentiments can be detected and analysed in sociological surveys;
- Exchanging vaccines with other states, allowing foreign vaccines to the Russian market and promoting the Russian vaccines to foreign markets;
- Enhancing the quality of the vaccines used;
- Unbiased addressing the main conspiracist ideas in media;
- Avoiding disparaging and intimidating rhetoric against the opponents of vaccination and guaranteeing straightforwardness and goodwill to the general population.