with Tonya Riley

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Actor Sylvester Stallone and comedian Chris Rock will tout Facebook groups in the social network’s first-ever Super Bowl ad on Sunday. The 60-second spot is part of a broader effort to rebuild trust in the company’s brand after years of privacy scandals and other controversies. 

Ahead of the ad's debut, the social network is telling consumers to get ready to rock. The commercial is expected to feature various Facebook groups related to rocks, ranging from the music variety to stone collectors. The promotional photos from Philadelphia suggest Stallone could be reprising his legendary “Rocky” role, and teasers show Rock shooting off a rocket.

“It felt like a natural place for us to share our message that 'whatever you are into there is a Facebook Group for you,'" said Facebook spokeswoman Liz Bourgeois. 

Here's a teaser: 

Expect to start seeing more light-hearted ads about the ways Facebook brings people together, as the company continues its "More Together" advertising campaign. The social network is placing the spots celebrating Facebook groups at high-profile cultural events throughout the year, including the Grammy Awards last week and the Oscars next month. 

Facebook's rise came from organic growth by word of mouth, but it's been spending more on advertising in recent years as it confronts backlash for privacy controversies, hosting disinformation and other harmful posts. Experts are skeptical the pricy spot during the big game will help the company change its image or move the needle with skeptical consumers. 

“There's nothing safer than 'We bring people together, we allow people to communicate,'" said Alixandra Barasch, an assistant marketing professor at New York University Stern School of Business.

Barasch said if the company really wanted to sway consumer sentiment, it would have to do something more risky and more daring.

“The low-risk strategy doesn’t seem like it’s going to move the needle in the way they’re hoping,” she told me.

Other marketing experts warned that even this Facebook ad could confront blowback. The company is focusing on groups even at a time when there are growing concerns that the feature can exacerbate the “filter bubble” effect, further ensuring that people see news or updates from only a select group of friends and communities. Some groups also have privacy settings that can make them more difficult to police for harmful content, and critics warn the groups have at times acted as a haven for medical misinformation or drug sales. 

“It definitely can backfire,” Tulin Erdem, a Leonard N. Stern Professor of Business at New York University, told me. 

Already there are signs of this from the company's critics. Coalition for a Safer Web, an organization that advocates for companies to remove terrorist or extremist content, called on the National Football League and Fox Sports to boycott the ad. The group claims that Facebook hosts groups that provide a “safe haven” for people seeking to spread extremism and anti-Semitism. 

“For all the good groups like the 49ers fans or Chiefs fans, there's the other hideous side of groups here,” said Eric Feinberg, CSW's vice president and principal content moderator. 

Facebook declined to comment on CSW and the specific criticisms the group made. However the company says it has taken steps to make sure groups are safer, including the Safe Communities Initiative. 

"Our Community Standards apply across Facebook, including in private groups. We know we have more work to do to on enforcement, and we’re making significant investments in people and technology to improve," Bourgeois said. 

Facebook could use a boost in trust at the moment: A Pew Research Center study published this week found both Republicans and Democrats distrust the social network for political news, with 59 percent of U.S. adults saying they do not trust it as a source. Forty-two percent of respondents do not trust its subsidiary Instagram. 


BITS: Facebook yesterday said it will remove posts, photos and videos that peddle harmful misinformation about the coronavirus, my colleague Tony Romm reported. It’s a rare move for the company -- which normally errs on the side of labeling or demoting false content, often to the ire of health experts.

The company will remove “claims related to false cures or prevention methods — like drinking bleach cures the coronavirus — or claims that create confusion about health resources that are available.” Facebook said it would base its decisions on advice from “leading global health organizations and local health authorities.”

Facebook's fact-checking partners already rated some misinformation about the disease as false, which reduces the appearance of the content in news feeds. But some of the misleading posts still appeared to be largely available in private groups that were created after the pandemic began to spread, as Tony previously reported.

Google and Twitter also took steps to direct users toward accurate medical information this week. Yesterday Google launched an "SOS Alert” in partnership with the World Health Organization to make resources about coronavirus easily accessible to people in affected areas or looking for information on Google Search.

NIBBLES: House lawmakers are investigating popular dating apps for allegedly permitting minors and sex offenders to use their services, Barbara Ortutay at the Associated Press reports

“Our concern about the underage use of dating apps is heightened by reports that many popular free dating apps permit registered sex offenders to use them, while the paid versions of these same apps screen out registered sex offenders,” wrote Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.), the chairman of the House Oversight subcommittee on economic and consumer policy.

Lawmakers sent letters to Match Group, Meet Group, Grindr and Bumble yesterday seeking more information on their practices in verifying user ages as well as policies related to whether they allow individuals who are registered sex offenders or who have committed violent crimes. The letter also requests access to all consumer complaints involving consumers under 18, sexual assault and rape as well as a full look at the companies' data collection policies. 

Match Group screens for sexual predators on paid versions of Match.com, but not on its other products including Tinder and OkCupid, a BuzzFeed investigation found last month. Lawmakers also cited a report from the Norwegian Consumer Council that found popular dating apps including Grindr, Tinder and OkCupid are sharing personal user data such as sexual preferences and locations to advertisers in possible violation of European and California privacy laws.

Grindr and The Meet Group did not respond to the Associated Press's request for comment. Bumble had no immediate comment.

BYTES: Radio conglomerate iHeartMedia said its recent mass layoffs were necessary as it embraced artificial intelligence. But critics say company executives used the systems as a scapegoat to obfuscate the consequences of other business failures, my colleague Drew Harwell reports

Many DJs Drew spoke with felt blindsided by the company's justification for the layoffs, equating it to a “bloodbath.” iHeartMedia human DJs provided much of the initial training for the music-mixing AI system the company now uses. 

This is a broader trend in a corporate world where executives are increasingly embracing technology that can replace tasks once done by humans. But the automation narrative typically does not focus on the human decision-makers who are deciding when to cut workers. 

“This is a typical example of a dying industry that is blaming technology for something that is just absolutely a reduction in force,” Jerry Del Colliano, a music business professor at New York University, told Drew. “It’s a bum rap for AI. It’s an excuse. We’ve got to get out of the habit of looking at AI or any other technology as simply a way to fire people.” 

iHeartMedia spokeswoman Wendy Goldberg defended the company, telling Drew it was shifting “jobs to the future from the past,” adding data scientists, podcast producers and other digital teams to help transform the company.


-- The Federal Trade Commission notified 19 Internet-based phone companies that they could face legal action for facilitating robocalls, Ryan Tracy at the Wall Street Journal reported. The agency's letters signal an increasingly aggressive federal crackdown on the number of fraudulent calls.

“These warning letters put VoIP providers on notice that we will take action when they knowingly facilitate illegal robocalls,” said Andrew Smith, director of the FTC’s consumer protection bureau. 

Many robocalls still exist in a legal gray area, but Congress passed a bill late last year that could enhance the authority of agencies such as the FTC and the Justice Department to penalize scammers.

— More news from the public sector:


— News from the private sector:


—  Tech news generating buzz around the Web:


  • Arvind Krishna will take over as chief executive at IBM in April, replacing outgoing IBM CEO Virginia Rometty.
  • Dropbox has named Olivia Nottebohm, formerly of Google Cloud, as its new Chief Operating Officer, Bloomberg reports.
  • Facebook brings on Eventbrite Chief Marking Officer Brian Irving as global head of marketing of its AR/VR business, Adweek reports.


— Coming up:

  • New America’s Open Technology Institute will host an event titled “Privacy’s Best Friend: How Encryption Protects Consumers, Companies, and Governments Worldwide” Tuesday  at 12 p.m.
  • Federal Trade Commissioners Noah Joshua Phillips and Rebecca Kelly Slaughter will address current technology policy issues during a panel conversation hosted by the Technology Policy Institute Wednesday at 10 a.m.
  • The House Energy and Commerce Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee will hold a hearing “Vaping in America: E-Cigarette Manufacturers’ Impact on Public Health.” hearing will be held on Wednesday at 10:30am
  • The House Homeland Security Committee will hold a hearing on DHS' use of facial recognition and other biometric technologies on Thursday.
  • The Future of Privacy Forum will host its 10th Annual Privacy Papers for Policymakers featuring a keynote speech by FTC Commissioner Christine S. Wilson on Thursday at 5:30pm.
  • The Department of Justice will hold a public workshop in Washington, D.C. on Feb. 19, 2020, titled “Section 230 – Nurturing Innovation or Fostering Unaccountability"
  • Silicon Flatirons will host its “Technology Optimism and Pessimism” conference Feb. 9 and 10 at the University of Colorado Law School in Boulder. Speakers include Federal Communications Commissioner Michael O’Rielly and Federal Trade Commissioner Rohit Chopra.
  • Mobile World Congress takes place Feb. 24 to 27 in Barcelona.