The outlet said "dozens of tech startups have been running explicit advertisements" on TikTok, Instagram and Facebook that promote these AI girlfriends. The ads reportedly promise explicit pictures and chats, and feature scantily clad females. Others, meanwhile, feature digitally created girls in the style of Japanese animation that appear to be teenagers or younger.
NBC News found 35 app developers running sexually explicit apps on Facebook and Instagram, both owned by Mark Zuckerberg's Meta. The developers were running more than 1,000 ads in all. Many of the explicit ads are easily discoverable and viewable on Meta's online library of ads, which the public has access to.
Meanwhile, 14 app developers were running hundreds more sexually provocative ads for AI girlfriends on TikTok. Some of the ads on TikTok had also appeared on Facebook and Meta. However, it isn't clear how many of the ads were seen in the U.S. as the video-sharing app's ads library only provides transparency for ads that appear in Europe.
NBC News also found similar ads appearing at the app stores for Google's Android and Apple's iOS mobile platforms. But the extent of advertising at the PlayStore and iOS Store isn't known, as the tech giants behind these do not disclose everyone who buys ads.
"The marketing push is part of an AI gold rush, in which app developers – most of them based abroad – are mining customers who are interested in sexual or romantic connections with custom digital characters," the news outlet stated. "It's part of a larger movement to capitalize on a surge of interest in AI, following the popularity of tech startup OpenAI's ChatGPT product, which reset expectations for what AI chatbots were capable of." (Related: What are the risks posed by artificial general intelligence?)
The presence of these AI ads on social media platforms reflects a demand for male companionship that modern technology has capitalized on. However, it also shows a certain bias in enforcing ad standards, if not an outright lack of moderation.
Carolina Are of the Center for Digital Citizens pointed out that the presence of these ads shows a "gender-based slant." She explained that social media platforms freely allow sex-related ads, but only if the intended audience is men.
Polly Rodriguez, an adviser to the Center for Intimacy Justice (CIJ) also pointed out that the AI chatbot ads serve as evidence of inconsistent enforcement and a double standard. She said social media platforms aren't addressing the root issue: "Why are these ads sailing through to begin with?"
In response to the findings by NBC News, TikTok and Meta stepped up their removal of sexually explicit AI ads. However, the two tech giants did not answer questions about how the ads got through their filters in the first place.
"Our policies prohibit ads containing adults content that is overly suggestive or sexually provocative – whether it's AI-generated or not," Meta said in a statement. "Our policies and enforcement are designed to adapt in this highly adversarial space, and we are actively monitoring any new trends in AI-generated content.
Meanwhile, TikTok confirmed in a separate statement that its policies prohibit such ads. Under the video-sharing app's guidelines, ads may not be sexually provocative, make sexual references or focus on individual body parts such as buttocks. It added that several examples of such ads cited by NBC News had been taken down.
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