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A feel-good ad from Facebook boasts a coronavirus group. But it's not quite what it seems.

Facebook’s coronavirus ads have primarily promoted groups, focused on feel-good subjects including cheering the frontline, or sewing face masks, or parenting under quarantine.
Image: Facebook Cheers for the frontline

A commercial for Facebook that ran on national TV promoting its group feature in the time of the coronavirus pulls at the heartstrings.

Backed by a somber piano score, the 60-second commercial features the Facebook group, “Cheers For The Frontline!” and a montage of 16 posts seemingly plucked from the group in which users praised essential workers alongside dramatic photos of nurses, doctors, delivery drivers, grocery workers and janitors.

The advertisement is part of a push by Facebook to boost its brand as a beacon of positivity during the pandemic. The social media giant paid an estimated $6.5 million to reach nearly a quarter billion people with the ad, according to advertising analytics firm iSpot.tv. It ran during popular programs including the Michael Jordan documentary series, “The Last Dance,” on ESPN and has more than 9 million views on YouTube.

But the Facebook ad seems to be misleading.

None of the posts in the television ad appear in the actual Facebook group, according to an NBC News analysis of the private group, whose membership has grown in response to the national ad to more than 11,000.

Many of the images can be found on various sources including public Facebook and Instagram posts, tweets, and stock photo collections, according to reverse image searches. The photos in the ads were mocked up as posts in the group.

A Facebook spokesperson said the images, which included photos of Toronto grocery workers and nurse anesthetists in Tampa, Florida, had been licensed. Adeel Khan, whose husband and her son were featured in the commercial, said a marketing company paid them “not much at all” to license the photo, but she had no idea it would be used in a Facebook ad.

None of the accounts in the ad, other than the administrator, actually belong to the group. Instead, the accounts featured as members posting to the group are all former and current Facebook employees, based on publicly available profiles.

Facebook has launched a variety of advertising efforts in recent years aimed at boosting the company's "Groups" feature. It's also been a priority of CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who in 2017 said that groups were crucial to the platform's future.

Facebook's importance in people's daily lives has only grown in recent months during the coronavirus pandemic, as the social network has seen an influx of people using the platform for local organizing. But it has also struggled to contain coronavirus misinformation — a problem that misinformation researchers have traced back to Facebook's private groups as well as messaging app WhatsApp, which Facebook owns.

In a statement, a Facebook spokesperson said, "Our goal was to show support for frontline health workers by featuring the outpouring we've seen for them on Facebook. To work within the constraints of Covid-19, we consulted with the group's admin and used content that mirrors real activity happening in this Facebook Group."

Instead of using actual posts from the group, Facebook relied on mocking up posts that captured “the spirit of the group,” the spokesperson said, and the names of Facebook employees were used for privacy concerns.

Facebook has been criticized for other deceptive public relations campaigns in the last year, including a glowing profile of five female Facebook employees in Teen Vogue that turned out to be unidentified sponsored content and dozens of uncritical paid-for articles in the British newspaper the Daily Telegraph.

It’s common for companies to use actors or stock photos in advertisements, of course. And Facebook is hardly the only brand to unveil commercials with sweeping coronavirus themes.

But, some say there remains a line between ads that play on viewers' emotions and those that are deceptive. Erin Schauster, an assistant professor at University of Colorado Boulder’s College of Media, Communication and Information, said that the lack of disclosures in Facebook's ad are problematic.

“The advertising is essentially misleading,” she said.

Schauster suggested the ad might include a disclaimer, like the “actor portrayal,” labels used by pharmaceutical companies for doctor testimonials, but hedged even there, saying a label might not go far enough.

The pandemic has understandably led advertisers at Facebook and elsewhere to alter their processes, facing new restrictions on travel, access to talent and content.

“We can expect processes to change, but it's still not a path to intend to deceive,” Schauster said.

As public health concerns have forced people to spend more time in their homes and thus online, the coronavirus has provided Facebook with a unique opportunity to grow its user engagement. The company has seized on an 11 percent year-over-year jump in daily active users to roll out new features such as meeting rooms and shops.

The coronavirus has also given Facebook a chance to burnish its image, which has been hit by years of privacy and data scandals, rampant political and health misinformation on its platform, and Russian interference in the 2016 election.

In response to the coronavirus, Facebook has made large donations to news organizations, relief efforts and frontline workers while promoting reputable information sources like the World Health Organization.

Facebook’s coronavirus ads have primarily promoted groups, focused on feel-good subjects including cheering the frontline, or sewing face masks, or parenting under quarantine. The ads include the tagline “MoreTogether,” and one specific to its coronavirus ads, “Especially Now.”

But critics have warned groups can be hubs for conspiracy theories and dangerous health misinformation. In the last few months, extremists have used the groups feature to organize protests against stay-at-home orders. Several of those groups, with hundreds of thousands of collective members, were removed by Facebook for violating state guidelines and calling for violence against lawmakers and government officials.

But even “Cheers For The Frontline!” -- the group held up by Facebook as a model of the power of groups -- comes with challenges.

The group has been targeted by casting agents looking to feature frontline workers in various campaigns and marketers hawking unwanted products — an onslaught that the group’s administrator was trying to correct, according to posts viewed by NBC News.

But the ads seem to have worked. Besides their online virality, many of “Cheers For The Frontline!” members have said they were compelled to join by the ad itself.

“I saw the FB commercial for this group & knew I needed to join to say THANK YOU!” one user posted.