Facebook Messenger has seen a surge in video calls since the coronavirus outbreak.


James Martin/CNET

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Facebook is releasing a new feature that lets you video chat with multiple people through Messenger even if you don’t have a social media account, a move that could help the company compete with popular videoconferencing app Zoom.

The world’s largest social network calls this new tool Messenger Rooms, and it can accommodate up to 50 people in a group video chat. You can invite others who don’t have a Facebook account by sharing a link to the video chat. The company plans to add this feature to other messaging services it owns, including Instagram Direct and WhatsApp. There’ll also be a way to create rooms though Facebook’s video chat device Portal.

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Facebook has a new feature called Messenger rooms that lets you invite anyone to a group video call.


Facebook

Video calling has skyrocketed during the coronavirus pandemic as more people stay at home to combat the spread of the virus, which causes a respiratory illness known as COVID-19. The release of the new feature shows how Facebook has been shifting its focus to products that people are using more during the pandemic. In April, Facebook Messenger released a new desktop app so users could chat on a bigger screen. Facebook-owned WhatsApp is also planning to expand group calls so you can voice or video call up to eight people.

Making it easier to video chat also comes with risks. Zoom came under fire for not doing enough to protect privacy and security after people hijacked calls on the service to share inappropriate or unexpected content including hate speech, profanity and pornography — a practice known as Zoom-bombing. Facebook has been plagued with several privacy woes, including the Cambridge Analytica data scandal, so users might be wary about using its service to video chat.

Privacy concerns, though, haven’t stopped people from video chatting on Facebook during the pandemic. More than 700 million accounts participate in voice and video calls every day on Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp, and the number of calls has more than doubled in many countries since the coronavirus outbreak began, Facebook said. The number of group video calls has gone up by more than 10 times in some cases.

Facebook said it doesn’t listen to your calls and there are ways to control your privacy. To create a room, you click on a video icon in Facebook Messenger. You can control who sees the room, and you can lock or unlock it. If a room is unlocked, anyone with the link can join and share it with others. You can share a room with your Facebook friends on News Feed, Groups and Events. The person who creates the room controls who can join and must be present in order for the call to begin. The room creator can remove guests at any time, and people can report a group video chat for violating Facebook’s rules. Reports to the social network won’t include video or audio from the call, Facebook said.

“We built Rooms with privacy and safety top of mind so you can feel comfortable connecting with your friends, family and communities,” said Stan Chudnovsky, who heads Facebook Messenger, in a blog post.

Facebook said Messenger Rooms will roll out in some countries this week before expanding globally in coming weeks. The social network didn’t specify which countries will get the new feature first. The company is also adding new augmented reality effects, including 14 camera filters to “brighten your space and your face.” The social network is introducing 360-degree backgrounds so users can feel like they’re somewhere else while they video chat, like the beach. Facebook plans to add an option in Facebook Dating, a feature within the main social network, so users can invite people to video chat in Messenger. 

The company has also been expanding features for Facebook Live, a tool people have been using more during the pandemic to work out, cook or attend religious services virtually. Facebook has faced several challenges when it comes to live video. People have used the tool to stream suicides and crimes, such as last year’s Christchurch mosque shootings. 

The company said it’s bringing back a tool that allows users to add another person to a live video and is introducing a way to mark Facebook events as live only. Instagram will now let you comment on live videos on your desktop and the photo app will make it possible to save your videos to IGTV so people can watch them after 24 hours. The company is also planning to introduce a feature that’ll let you broadcast a live video from Facebook Portal to Facebook Pages and Groups.

Facebook, which has 2.5 billion users, hasn’t released numbers on how many Facebook Portal devices it’s sold during the pandemic. The company is scheduled to report its first-quarter earnings on April 29.


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