Social media is a powerful tool of influence. It proves so everyday as it quite literally feeds us with ideas of what to buy, who to follow, which destinations to visit and what things to like. 

It can provide a way of connecting with one another and can remind us of all we have in common with one another. 

But a tool only has as much influence for good as those wielding it will allow.

It has been disheartening this year to see just how much people choose to use social media to respond to or emphasize negative or, at the very least, superfluous, influences rather than truly positive ones.

In November, social media feeds among members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (and likely many others in and around the world) were flooded with happy messages and photos as individuals posted for seven consecutive days using the #GiveThanks. 

The posts came in response to a request by church President Russell M. Nelson, who asked Latter-day Saints to spread the spirit of the Thanksgiving holiday. 

It was a positive and beautiful thing to see so many people responding so diligently to something that served to uplift and buoy people’s spirits amid the rising COVID-19 case and death counts. It’s exactly the type of thing I would hope to see social media influence used for.

But at the same time, I have to wonder why similar requests made on social media by church leaders, government officials and celebrity influencers — like directives to wear masks, social distance and look forward to a vaccine, simple actions that could literally prove lifesaving — have not been heeded with as much enthusiasm or rigor.

For example, video messages from various religious leaders requesting members to demonstrate love for others by making sacrifices — like wearing masks and submitting to symptom screenings as temples reopen and church congregations meet again — were not met with unanimous enthusiasm. Rather, the comment threads accompanying such posts were filled instead by people bickering over the effectiveness of masks and debating the merits of obedience to such requests and advice from church leaders, politicians and medical experts. 

Do we need a hashtag to dictate everything we do? Is that the missing ingredient or reasoning for why people have responded with so much less dedication to these potentially lifesaving requests?

In so many cases — most prominent being the recent mask mandate by Gov. Gary Herbert — attempts to influence people via social media have garnered quite the opposite response.

It was shocking in October and November to see that, not only did small groups of people show up to protest the mask mandate in front of Gov. Herbert’s house, but also hundreds of people blatantly disregarded the mandate and flaunted it on social media as they posted photos and videos of themselves and their friends attending large parties and other gatherings where no COVID-19 related precautions were taking place.

When faced with conflicting influences, people are more likely to follow whatever the majority of people in their direct sphere are doing — and that includes on social media. The challenge, then, becomes tipping the influence in a more positive direction.

As was pointed out in a recent article by Deseret News writer Sofia Jeremias, disagreements over COVID-19 precautions have proven to be a breaking point of civility in relationships for many people, even among those united by religion and beliefs. But they don’t have to be.

Following a death count of more than 300,000 in the U.S., the fight against the coronavirus took a markedly positive turn on Monday, Dec. 14 as a woman and critical care nurse named Sara Lindsay in Queens, New York, became the first American to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.

Her goal in participating in the mass vaccination program was not to be the first one to take the vaccine, she told The New York Times, “but to inspire people who look like me, who are skeptical in general about taking vaccines.” 

As was stated in a Deseret News editorial Monday, when it comes to human psychology, “It only takes a few people to tip the scales of acceptable behavior, for better or worse.” 

I say, thank goodness for people like Lindsay, who are willing to step up and lead out in influencing those around them for the better. 

My hope is that more of us will own up to our responsibility to do the same.

A recent Provo-based study indicated that some 68% of Americans say they are supportive of the COVID-19 vaccine. I wonder if so many of us will actually get it without a hashtag bandwagon to jump on.

Maybe we should start one. #GetVaccinated anyone?

Government leaders, church leaders, and scientific and medical experts are all working within their spheres of influence to help calm people’s fears about the vaccine and make sure people have the necessary information and direction needed to continue stemming the spread of the virus as we approach the new year.

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As vaccines begin arriving in Utah this week, each of us has the opportunity to step up and be a positive example by continuing to wear masks, talk openly about the vaccine and encourage others to do the same, both in person and on social media. 

So here’s my question: Will you? 

Will you be an influence for good and encourage those in your sphere to follow the advice of their leaders? 

Doing so is probably the best way to meet the goals we all have in common — saving lives and getting the economy back on track. 

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