Racy photos spoil Alipay's social media push

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Ant Financial’s attempt to add a social-network function to China’s biggest payments platform has backfired.

Within hours of launching its “Circles” function, the financial affiliate of Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. was embarrassed when pictures of scantily clad young women were posted in exchange for money. After widespread online criticism, Executive Chairman Lucy Peng apologized Tuesday for introducing the Tinder-like feature to the Alipay app.

The company, controlled by billionaire and Alibaba co-founder Jack Ma, vowed to become more disciplined when introducing new features. “Circles” was flooded with photos of women posing suggestively in bikinis and underwear, with some indicating they were looking for hookups. The company vowed to remove any inappropriate pictures and block related accounts permanently, Peng said in an internal memo to employees that was posted on its social media account.

The function sparked debate about whether Alipay stepped over the line to increase the popularity of its app, which competes with WeChat’s payment and social-media functions run by Tencent Holdings Ltd.

Adding to the controversy, the company only allowed users who received a certain score, based on its data-driven credit-rating system, to post comments and pay cash rewards if they liked the photos. The credit score requirement has been removed and most circles which are industry-related are now by invite only, the company said.

“We apologize to all the Alipay users and partners who have entrusted us,” Peng said in the letter. “Our teams will hold internal discussion to think clearly and put in writing what we want and don’t want.”

Peng lamented the damage done to Ant Financial’s brand. Alipay, the online payment system, has more than 100 million daily active users and has expanded into wealth management products and credit scoring systems. Formally known as Zhejiang Ant Small & Micro Financial Services Group, it was valued at $75 billion by CLSA in September.
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