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Facebook adds new features to groups amid coronavirus pandemic

The company wants to make it simpler for people to chat in groups and is testing ways for people to find public groups on and off the social network.

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More than 1.8 billion people use Facebook groups every month, says the social network. 
Image by Pixabay; illustration by CNET

Facebook is ramping up its efforts to get people to join its groups, where they can gather online to discuss specific topics, as one way to overcome isolation amid the coronavirus pandemic.

On Thursday, the world's largest social network unveiled new features aimed at making it easier for people to chat in groups. People who run a Facebook group will be able to host question-and-answer sessions or share a photo about a particular topic, as well as swipe through people's responses as part of a feature called Prompts. Another tool will let group administrators reject posts with certain keywords or from new members.

Facebook is also testing ways for people to find public groups on and off the social network. The company said it'll show public group discussions in the News Feed and in other places outside of Facebook such as in search results.

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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg says more people are turning to groups during the coronavirus pandemic.

Screenshot by Queenie Wong/CNET

Facebook has been focusing more on groups as more people shift to private online spaces to share their thoughts instead of posting publicly. More than 1.8 billion people use Facebook groups every month. The rising popularity of groups, which can be public or private, has been a double-edged sword for the social network. On one hand, groups can be used to bring people together who are passionate about topics like birding, parenting or hiking. On the other hand, people have also been using groups to spread misinformation about vaccines or push far-right conspiracy theories such as QAnon. 

"COVID has meant that a lot more of our communities have shifted online and for many of us, Facebook groups have been an important space to find support, share information or just be entertained," Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said Thursday during the company's Communities Summit. The summit was livestreamed on Facebook, and more than 26,000 people were watching the keynote presentation at one point. 

People have been using Facebook groups to share remote learning tips or encourage social distancing during the pandemic. One group that Zuckerberg said helped him through the early days of quarantine brings people together to sing at a safe distance.

Zuckerberg didn't address the downsides of Facebook groups in his brief remarks, but Fidji Simo, who oversees the Facebook App, pointed out during the virtual event that the company has been investing in more safety features for groups. Facebook says it has taken down more than 1 million groups over the last year for violating its rules.

"We know that there's more work to be done, but we are committed to ensuring everyone has a safe experience on Facebook," Simo said.