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Facebook, Twitter users more politically engaged, more trusting

If you use Facebook or other social media sites, you're more likely to be politically engaged, have more close relationships and be more trusting than others, according to a new study by the Pew Internet Foundation.

The study comes at an interesting time, as Inside Facebook reported this week that Facebook lost 6 million users in May — the first time the social media site has lost American users in the last year. The site still has 149.4 million users in the U.S. In Canada, the number of users fell 1.52 million, making the total of users there 16.6 million.

Speculation about the reason for the exodus includes liberal privacy settings, the "aging" of Facebook users and quality time-use, as well as other social media options like Twitter and the up-and-coming Diaspora.

Coupled with the change in numbers, Pew's findings offer interesting observations about Facebook users.

Pew found that "the typical Internet user is more than twice as likely as others to feel that people can be trusted. Further, we found that Facebook users are even more likely to be trusting." Users who check the site multiple times in a day are 43 percent more likely than other users to feel that people can be trusted.

Aaron J. Dewald, director of the Technology Initiative at the University of Utah, suggests that their political activity may be based on something more than Internet use, that it's based on the similarities of the people who appear on our Facebook newsfeeds — a curated collection of people whose activities we want to see and opinions want to hear, made possible by selective friend-request acceptance and blocking.

"It's the birds-of-a-feather mentality," Dewald said. "Exclude our social circle so much that we aren't challenged. But what about dissenting opinion?"

Though Facebook users may engage in political discussion, the quality and diversity of it comes into question when framed in this way. Dr. Matthew Kushin, assistant professor at UVU studied that with Masahiro Yamamoto in a paper titled, "Did Social Media Really Matter? College Students' Use of Online Media and Political Decision Making in the 2008 Election."

"Scholars have argued that the Internet is a democratizing medium for its capacity to provide increased access to information and interaction, bringing individuals into the political process. A competing perspective suggests the Internet is a polarizing medium that allows like-minded individuals to share and reinforce their preexisting political beliefs. Our results support the former."

Facebook users, it appears, also have the advantage of social support. The average "discussion confidants" in America is just over two people, according to the Pew study. Someone who uses Facebook several times a day has, on average 9 percent more "close, core ties in their overall social network."

Internet users in general scored three points higher in total support, six points higher in companionship and four points higher in instrument aid support than the average American. Frequent Facebook users scored five points higher in total points, five points higher in emotional support and five points higher in companionship than those with similar demographic characteristics.

The study also shows that Facebook plays a role in maintaining those close ties, in addition to reviving "dormant relationships."

"it allows you to keep passive relationships with people you normally wouldn't think twice about. In 'friending' them I'm keeping a passive monitor on them," Dewald said.

He points out that in this way, people are connecting unlike before.

"When I was in California, I sent out a Facebook message telling people where I was. From that I had friends saying we should go to lunch in California. That wasn't possible before."

In addition to reviving dormant relationships, social media spurs new ones as well, which may help explain the Pew's findings, as well, like Dewald's marriage. He met his wife on Myspace. When he met her, it was a strange dynamic.

"When you meet (in person), it's like you have to get to know each other all over again. You've been communicating, basically, in ones and zeros up until then. I knew her, but I had to get to know her again, or in a different way," he said.

Though Pew found active Facebook users were more trusting than others, this may be a reflection of trust toward people and not necessarily the government.

Kushin and Yamamoto found in their yet-to-be published study that those who used social media for campaign information were more likely to be politically cynical and apathetic than otherwise, though the study is limited to feelings toward political leaders.

Dewald offers an explanation based on the nature of social media and the built-in likelihood of public embarrassment. He used the example of someone putting up on their profile something false, whether about them or not, and the possible hundreds of people with the accessibility to correct what is said, creating an information filter.

The study also said that social networking sites are aging, in that the average age of users was 38 in 2010, compared to 33 in 2008. Facebook, in particular, holds 92 percent of users, MySpace 29 percent, LinkedIn 18 percent and 13 percent use Twitter. Facebook and Twitter lead the way in the percentage of users who used the platform daily, updating a status, commenting, "liking" and sending private messages.