Facebook reported its first-quarter earnings on Wednesday.


Angela Lang/CNET

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Facebook’s first-quarter revenue and user numbers beat Wall Street expectations Wednesday, even as the social media giant cautioned that the coronavirus pandemic has caused “unprecedented uncertainty” in its business outlook.

Facebook has seen a surge in people using the social network to stay in touch with family and friends during lockdowns designed to slow the spread of COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the virus. That’s given the company, which has been plagued by various privacy scandals, a chance to show that its services can be used for good. 

Facebook said a record number of people are using the social network, but the coronavirus outbreak slowed demand for advertising in the last three weeks of the first quarter. The company said monthly active users rose to 2.6 billion, up 10% in the same quarter a year ago. Analysts expected Facebook to report 2.56 monthly active users.

“Our work has always been about helping you stay connected with the people you care about,” said Facebook CEO and co-founder Mark Zuckerberg in a statement. “With people relying on our services more than ever, we’re focused on keeping people safe, informed and connected.”

At the same time, Facebook has had to weather challenges created by the outbreak. Production of Facebook’s consumer hardware products, such as its Oculus virtual reality headsets and its Portal video chat devices, have been impacted by the virus. Coronavirus misinformation also continues to spread on Facebook, forcing the company to ramp up efforts to moderate content that could harm people’s health and safety. 

In a statement, the company said it expected its business performance to be affected by issues outside of its control, including the length of shelter-in-place orders, the effectiveness of measures to stimulate the economy and the value of the US dollar. 

“Like all companies, we are facing a period of unprecedented uncertainty in our business outlook,” the company said.

Facebook reported $17.7 billion in revenue from January to March, surpassing the $17.4 billion in revenue that analysts surveyed by Thomson Reuters projected.

The social media giant earned $1.71 per share, below estimates of $1.75 per share. The company’s stock was up more than 10% to $214.39 per share in after-hours trading.

A double-edged sword

To combat misinformation, CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Dr. Priscilla Chan, his wife, have interviewed infectious disease experts and politicians via live video. The chats appear in Facebook ‘s coronavirus information center, an online hub the social network launched in March to direct people to more trustworthy sources of information.

Still, misinformation remains a big problem for social networks. Conspiracy theories and hoaxes still thrive in Facebook groups, including false claims the coronavirus is caused by 5G, according to an analysis by NBC. The New York Times also found that there were 487 Facebook communities pushing the 5G conspiracy theory, which government officials believe is linked to cell tower fires. 

Outside of new products, the company is also donating millions of dollars to small businesses and local news organizations. The company is offering businesses $100 million in cash grants and ad credit. It’s also been donating thousands of its Portal video chat devices to veterans in the US and people in hospitals and care homes in the UK. 

Facebook has been doubling down on video with the release of new features. Last week, Facebook released a new tool called Messenger Rooms that lets you video chat with up to 50 people, a move that could help the company compete with Zoom and HouseParty.

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