Xiaohongshu, the social media and lifestyle platform sometimes known as China's answer to Instagram, apologised for letting bloggers share heavily filtered photos of tourist attractions, disappointing users who went to those locations after seeing the pictures.
The app, also known as Little Red Book, issued a statement on Sunday (Oct 17) on its social media account, admitting that some users have "over-beautified" their online travel diaries.
"Since the bloggers did not clearly state that their pictures were works of photography, they were perceived as travel guides. After the viewers visited those places in person, they found a big gap [between reality and what they saw online], leaving them feeling deceived," the post said.
The platform, which said it has 100 million monthly active users, many of them young female consumers in their 20s and 30s, stressed that its community rules "explicitly call for users to avoid over-editing when sharing recommendations in areas such as beauty and make-up, fashion and store visits".
"Everyone loves beauty, and you may moderately beautify your diaries. But please remember that the content you share might be used by other people as the basis for making decisions," the platform said. "We sincerely apologise to our users."
Xiaohongshu added that it plans to launch a rankings function for travel spots and a list of tourist traps that users should avoid.
The apology came after users complained on social media about their experience following travel guides on Xiaohongshu, only to find out on actual visits that the places are poles apart from the skilfully retouched images they saw.
One of the most well-known cases involved the "pink beach" of Fuxian Lake in China's southwestern Yunnan province, which often appears online in dreamy pastel images, but in reality is more akin to the colour of red bricks.
The highly filtered pictures on Xiaohongshu have recently become a hot topic on Chinese social media, with the hashtags "I won't trust Xiaohongshu any more" and "how powerful are Xiaohongshu's filters?" trending on Chinese microblogging site Weibo.
The two hashtags had attracted 460 million views and 350,000 discussions by Monday morning.
"If it's ok to Photoshop promotion pictures for tourist sites like this, I can turn the bushes downstairs in my neighbourhood into a Norwegian forest in any minute," one of the most upvoted comments said.
Others argued that the problem lies with the bloggers rather than the platform.
The controversy came as Beijing has been tightening control over the country's tech industry. Xiaohongshu became a target of a cyberspace crackdown in 2019, when it was temporarily removed from app stores in China to undergo "content rectification".
Xiaohongshu, backed by Chinese tech giants Alibaba Group Holding - owner of the South China Morning Post - and Tencent Holdings, has risen in recent years as one of China's most popular social media and e-commerce apps.
Last week, Bloomberg News reported that the Shanghai-based firm is weighing a Hong Kong initial public offering to raise at least US$500 million (S$675 million).
The company originally wanted to float in the US, but it put its plan on hold in July after Beijing announced it would increase scrutiny of foreign listings.
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.