Some of the ads include descriptions of sexual violence, paired with images of battered women and photos of male fitness influencers, which were used without permission.
Apps backed by ByteDance and Tencent have been running hundreds of ads on Facebook and Instagram containing sexually explicit content, descriptions of graphic violence and content promoting acts of self harm.
The ads, which violate Meta’s policies, contain excerpts from erotic web novels featuring young adult fantasy themes like werewolves and vampires, often paired with short videos and images that appear to be taken from influencers, movies and TV shows. With descriptions of sexual assault and images of distressed women and girls next to muscular men, these ads push users to download apps where they can pay to read stories by the chapter.
One ad, teasing a story about a “night of terror” where a teen girl will be “mated” to a “creature,” featured a shirtless photo of Brazilian football star Neymar mashed up with a stock image of a beaten woman. A representative for Neymar told Forbes the image was used without permission.
The ad was for iReader, an app into which TikTok parent company ByteDance invested $170 million in 2020. As of Saturday morning, 83 other live ads for iReader featured a story chapter titled “His Personal Cum Bucket” and a graphic description of sexual violence. Multiple requests for comment sent to numerous iReader representatives went unanswered.
Ads for the Mytopia app, which is owned by ByteDance, contained similarly troubling content. Three ads for the app included a text description of a teen girl being molested by her step-brother, and three other ads contained a romanticized account of a teen girl cutting herself. After being contacted by Forbes, ByteDance paused Mytopia’s ad campaign, and ByteDance spokesperson Billy Kenny said that the ads “do not match our values.”
Ads paired excerpts of violent erotica with images of distressed women and girls and muscular men, which were sometimes used without permission. Note: some images may be disturbing.
On Wednesday, an app called Webnovel, which is owned by Tencent subsidiary China Literature, began running ads featuring sexually explicit comics that implied incest between a mother and her son. China Literature stopped the ad campaign when contacted for comment by Forbes. In a statement, spokesperson Maggie Zhou said: “We can confirm these ads were posted by third-party agencies without informing China Literature and in violation of our content policies.”
ByteDance (which owns TikTok) and Tencent (which owns WeChat and some of the most popular videogames in the world) have long struggled to show that their products do not expose people to content promoting sex, abuse, or self harm. But while the Chinese tech giants have invested heavily in removing this kind of content from TikTok and WeChat, they have at the same time paid for erotic web novel businesses to create it and promote it to Meta users through ads.
Ads for Webnovel, which is owned by Tencent subsidiary China Literature, featured sexually explicit comics that implied incest between a mother and her son. They have now been taken down.
Meta, for its part, has appeared largely incapable of halting this flood of violent fantasy erotica ads that violate its rules. The company’s Ad Library reveals that while Meta has detected and removed dozens of these ads, advertisers have just put more up. Moreover, Meta’s detection appears weak and haphazard, with weeks-old ads still live featuring text that obviously violates its rules. Before Forbes contacted Meta about the ads, searches of the Ad Library for phrases like “his cock” and “rape me” returned hundreds of results, nearly all of them ads for web novel apps. (Disclosure: in a past life, I held policy positions at Facebook and Spotify.)
Meta spokesperson Andy Stone said the company had removed dozens of ads from web novel companies before it was approached by Forbes, and that it has removed nearly 200 ads and pages since being presented with our findings. Still, five new renditions of the “cum bucket” ad began running last night from a page that Forbes had flagged to Meta, and a quick search of the Ad Library returns hundreds of similar results.
Apps like Webnovel, Mytopia and iReader have boomed during the pandemic. The apps first became popular in China, where ByteDance’s Tomato Novel app has been downloaded more than 60 million times. But they have recently become popular in the U.S., too. iReader was downloaded 1.5 million times in 2021, and Webnovel was downloaded more than 2 million times in 2022, according to Sensor Tower. Although Chinese apps dominate the sector, domestic apps offer similar wares: Amazon’s Kindle Vella features identical themes and even some of the same stories featured on other apps. It does not appear to advertise on Facebook or Instagram.
Earlier this year, Rest of World reported that the profit margin for China-based web novels is often very high, with companies making as much as 10 times as much as they pay authors for each story. But that profit margin may depend in significant part on ads: In 2021, Protocol reported that 42.7% of China-based web novels were introduced to overseas readers through advertising.
This market also extends beyond just apps backed by Tencent and ByteDance. Last week, Forbes identified more than 1,000 ads running from more than 100 Facebook pages representing China-based web novel apps. Some of the ads stayed within bounds, offering largely standard romance novel fare, but others violated Meta’s policies barring explicit sexual content.
One ad running on Thursday morning promoted an app called MoboReader, and described a scene in which a woman’s husband tries to kill her by hitting her with a car, and then another man subsequently rapes her. Moboreader did not respond to a request for comment.
A text excerpt used in at least 32 other ads on Thursday included a graphic, romanticized description of a teen girl engaging in self-mutilation after being abused. The ads were for Supernovel, an app whose Terms of Service claim it is owned by Cloudary Holdings, a subsidiary of Tencent. When asked about the app, Tencent and Cloudary denied any relationship to it.
In 2019, the China-based blog TechNode reported that a ByteDance web novel app popular with domestic Chinese audiences was shut down for three months by the Chinese government for distributing “lowbrow and sexually suggestive content.” But as the web novel industry has grown, ByteDance and Tencent have deepened their investments in it.
In December 2019, ByteDance acquired a majority stake in MyMind Culture, the parent company behind several Chinese-language novel apps. In July 2020, it bought a 10% stake in Beijing Dingtian Culture Entertainment, which runs similar apps, including SweetRead and DmRead. Later that year, ByteDance paid $170 million for 11% of the China-based e-book company Zhangyue, which makes the iReader app, as well as ForNovel, Novelink, Favoread and Noveltells. In 2021, it launched Mytopia, which, like iReader, is targeted to foreign audiences.
Billy Kenny, the ByteDance spokesperson, said that ByteDance (which invested in Zhangyue through its acquisition arm, Quantum Jump) “doesn’t have any involvement in the product and business strategy of Zhangyue’s global businesses.” Zhangyue, however, told shareholders in April: “Mr. Zhang Chao, head of ByteDance’s novel business department, is a director of the company. The company and Byte have cooperated in various aspects such as content copyright and advertising cooperation.” Kenny did not answer follow-up questions about the nature of this cooperation.
Tencent owns the conglomerate China Literature, which controls the flagship English-language Webnovel app through a company called Cloudary Holdings. Terms of service for a cluster of other apps running ads on Facebook, including iNovel, eReader, SuperNovel, PopNovel, Mobooks and MyNovel, list Cloudary Holdings as their operator; however, Maggie Zhou, a spokesperson for China Literature, told Forbes that the entities are not owned or operated by China Literature or Cloudary.
Ads for various apps also used clips from major movies, including Star Wars, Marvel Comics, and DC Comics.
Many of these ads also appear to rip content from influencers, television shows and movies. In addition to its Neymar ad, Zhangyue has also featured images of other celebrities, including Kylie Jenner and fitness influencer Chadoy Leon. Leon, whose image was stitched together with photos of frightened women, told Forbes he had never heard of iReader. “Whoever is using my pictures are using them without my permission,” he said. Jenner’s rep declined to comment on the record.
Ads for Zhangyue apps, as well as iNovel, Supernovel and others, also used content from major movies, including those from the Twilight movies, Star Wars, DC Comics and Marvel Studios. A representative from Warner Brothers (which owns DC Comics) said its content had been used without permission; Disney (which owns Marvel and Star Wars) and Summit Entertainment (which owns Twilight) did not respond to a request for comment.
Many of the Facebook pages running these ads also bore signs of ban evasion, suggesting the companies are intentionally avoiding takedowns by Meta. Some apps used intentional misspellings for words that might lead to flags. One ad for iReader described a character by the “visible V running down to his gen.ita1s.” Other iReader-owned pages, including those promoting Noveltells and Novelink, added a letter to profane terms, including bitcch and whoree.
Novel apps have also spread their ads out across numerous pages — a tactic often used by networks trying to ensure that one or two takedowns will not cripple an entire campaign. Ads promoting an app called Noveland have been placed from pages labeled Noveland1 through Noveland8, as well as pages with title variations like Noveland App and Noveland Romance Story. Pages called Noveland11, Noveland12, and Noveland13 were created earlier this month, but are not running ads at this time. Requests for comment sent to Noveland were not answered.
Other ads have come from pages with more colorful names: Some ads promoting iReader were placed from werewolf-themed pages with names like Alpha King, Gamma Fire and Ugly Mate, as well as pages with nonsense names like Genius Babies and Llj-Hhh. A Philippines-based app called Pinky Novel has been running ads from a page called Kz Car Tint & Accesories [sic], and an app called AhaNovel, has been running ads from a page titled “Raped by Mr. CEO.” (Pinky Novel and Aha Novel did not respond to requests for comment.)
Despite Forbes reporting the page to Meta on Wednesday morning, at time of this writing, “Raped by Mr. CEO” is still live on the platform today.
No longer live, though, is a page Facebook published in 2021, highlighting Webnovel as “success story” in advertiser partnerships. Stone did not respond to a question about whether Meta still considers Webnovel a model for other advertisers today.
By Emily Baker-White, Forbes Staff