Facebook connected me to a larger network of BYU College Democrats, which helped facilitate better online discussions. —Bryce Hurst

PROVO — Bryce Hurst harbors decidedly Democratic ideals: a genuine affinity toward President Barack Obama, for instance, not to mention his steadfast belief in universal health care.

But Hurst, 24, lives in Utah — the state Gallup determined earlier this year to be the most Republican-leaning in the country — and attends BYU, which College Magazine named the second-most pro-Mitt Romney university in the country.

During any other presidential election prior to 2012, Hurst would have felt like a political outsider in his own community. Fortunately for Hurst, though, he politically came of age during last year's election cycle — a time when social network sites like Facebook and Twitter effortlessly brought together people with like-minded politics.

"Facebook connected me to a larger network of BYU College Democrats, which helped facilitate better online discussions," Hurst said.

Hurst's experience illustrates several findings of "Civic Engagement in the Digital Age," a new study the Pew Research Center study released Wednesday that revealed 39 percent of Americans participate in political activity on social networks. (At the time Obama was first elected president in 2008, only 26 percent of Americans had ever even interfaced with any social networking site.) Indeed, social networks are influencing much of how Americans engage with each other politically.

"It's nice for me," Hurst said, "because there's a network of like-minded individuals that I can have discussions with. … I don't want to make it sound like it's a retreat to a network of like-minded individuals so we can feel like we have commonality — but it's nice to have intelligent discussion on issues without having someone making emotion-based value judgments."

'A sports-team mentality'

The fact that Hurst associated with fellow Democrats via social networks lines up nicely with the observations of Aaron Smith, the senior researcher at Pew who was the lead author on "Civic Engagement in the Digital Age."

"When people go to these social network sites, they already know what 'team' they're on," Smith said. "They're not necessarily looking to decide how to feel about an issue. It's more of a sports-team mentality: They want to know, 'What's happening with my team today? What do I need to do to help my team win today?'"

Because the self-determinative nature of social network sites dictates that people will tend to associate with those who share their beliefs, Smith emphasized that the new research doesn't establish a causal relationship between the elevated political presence of social networks on the one hand, and the increasingly polarized nature of politics in general on the other.

"We can see some self-sorting (on social networks) going on in that respect," Smith said. "But obviously we also see that in a lot of other areas — everything from the types of television news that they watch, to the other news sources that they get. It is occurring within the social media sphere, but it's also occurring outside of that. So what's causing what — we can't make any kind of firm statements about that."

Staying the same

An American making more than $150,000 annually has a 68-percent likelihood of participating in a civic event, activity or group during the past year — while that same figure is below 50 percent for anybody making less than $75,000.

"We've been tracking that for several years now," Smith said. "And the story that we found is that the those who get involved politically on social networking sites may look a bit different in some ways, but in other ways they're very similar to the people we see getting involved in other types of civic or political activities."

Two other areas where social network sites have yet to make a major impact are day-to-day conversations and political donations. For example, Americans are three times more likely to talk about politics away from the Internet than online. Also, more than 60 percent of political donors made all their contributions through offline interfaces like telephone or mail.

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Along those lines, even Bryce Hurst discovered his newfound proclivity for social network political discourse didn't preclude a fair amount of face-to-face political conversations.

"I've had friends who have seen my posts on Facebook," Hurst said. "And because I go to school with them they'll shoot me a text or we'll go have lunch and they'll be like, 'Hey, tell me about this. Explain this to me. Help me understand this.' … The nice thing with social media is that it leads to individual discussions; it definitely facilitates face-to-face activism."