China

Death of a Bilibili censor reignites overwork debates in China

The unexpected death of a content moderation worker at Bilibili brings the plight of Chinese censors into focus.

Bilibili logo

Content moderation is critical to keep platforms running, but the individuals toiling away behind the screens are certainly not treated as essential workers.

Illustration: Christopher T. Fong/Protocol

Content moderation is challenging, largely hidden work all over the globe. China’s tens of thousands of content moderators are no exception: They’re an invisible, overworked workforce who keep social apps from Douyin and WeChat to Bilibili and Weibo running. But unlike other overworked groups, such as gig delivery workers, their plight was nearly unknown to the public until the recent tragic death of a worker at one of China’s leading video platforms.

On Feb. 4, a 25-year-old content moderator for Bilibili died from a brain bleed. Screenshots floating online that his colleagues at Bilibili leaked to a tech blogger showed that he was asked to work extra shifts during the Lunar New Year, when almost the entire country’s workforce was on holiday. But Bilibili denied in an internal email he had worked overtime before his death, emphasizing he only worked regular eight-hour shifts the previous week.

Bilibili’s response to the unexpected death and ensuing public criticism was to hire 1,000 additional moderators to reduce individuals’ workloads, and to offer additional health screening and mental health counseling to the existing censorship workers.

The tragic death startled tens of millions of Chinese web users, sparking heated online discussions about the demanding nature of low-level work in Chinese tech companies, as well as the pervasiveness of censorship in China. The incident also prompted many former and current censors for various Chinese internet platforms to come out and talk about their own grueling experiences.

Content moderation is critical to keep platforms running, but the individuals toiling away behind the screens are certainly not treated as essential workers. One former Bilibili content moderator, using the pseudonym Chen Rou, told Chinese news aggregator Sohu that cameras are installed throughout the office to monitor them 24/7, and team leaders micromanage workers’ lunch breaks. The worst part, they added, is the endless overtime and performance assessments: If a content moderator wishes to pass monthly assessments, they must spend no more than 24 seconds screening each video clip, and must screen at least 1,500 clips per day. If a new hire missed the target too often, they’d be fired during their six-month probation period. “To save their jobs, new hires often have to clock in voluntary hours to make up for the set quota,” the worker said.

The salaries don’t match the stress of the job, Chen added, telling Sohu that a front-line content moderator’s monthly take-home pay after taxes is about 4,000 RMB ($631). In comparison, the 2021 average monthly base salary for private sector workers in Shanghai was 8,528 RMB ($1,348). And if someone fails the monthly exam, they’ll only get half that pay, another pseudonymous former Bilibili content moderator, Zhou Zhuo, said. This wage has barely budged from what a content moderator was paid 10 years ago, according to Liu Lipeng, who worked as an internet censor and a content quality manager at several Chinese tech companies for nearly 10 years.

Just like other tech jobs in China, logging in overtime is commonplace. White-collar tech workers are theoretically no longer held to the so-called “996” schedule, but content moderators face an even more exhausting schedule. According to the former Bilibili censorship workers, they had to work a 12-hour shift every other day. On top of that, they were required to provide support from home during their off hours, and if their shifts ran long by less than two hours, there was no overtime pay for them. “To meet their KPIs, some people might log in an extra six to eight hours,” Zhou told Sohu.

Moderation and censorship

Content moderation jobs are some of the most labor-intensive at any social platform in any country. Censorship workers at Chinese companies describe an unforgiving work environment much similar to what their peers at U.S. firms such as Facebook have reported: It’s an overly taxing, yet low-paying, job that leaves them barely any breaks throughout a long shift. The workers are heavily exposed to spam, crime, abuse, violence and more. In the U.S., a former content moderator in 2018 sued Meta (then Facebook), alleging that she developed PTSD on the job, resulting in Facebook paying $52 million in a class-action settlement.

But in China, the stakes are much higher. Not only do moderators have to handle objectionable content, but also they have to contend with outsized demand for political censorship. Workplace trauma is rarely discussed in public, even though Chinese content moderators arguably work under more extreme circumstances than their peers globally. In the U.S., censors missing something major could result in a bad PR cycle and maybe a Congressional hearing. In China, the consequences are more grave: The entire platform could be immediately shut down.

Even though many Chinese web users self-censor, and political speech comprises only a tiny part of deleted online content, “company executives are always on edge,” a former ByteDance tech worker told Protocol.

To mitigate risk, social platforms have developed AI-powered tools to make content moderators’ work more efficient. Still, they rely heavily on armies of censors to manually screen everything that’s posted online and, in the case of videos, before it goes live.

TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, employs the biggest number of content moderators among Chinese tech companies by far: It has about 20,000 contract and in-house censors.

Not every Chinese tech company is as deep-pocketed as ByteDance, for sure. Bilibili, the firm at the center of the current controversy, revealed in a prospectus submitted to the Hong Kong Stock Exchange that by the end of 2020, it employed 2,413 moderators. That was 28% of its total workforce at the time. In comparison, Meta has more than 15,000 content moderators handling content on its platforms, though many are employed by contracting firms.

Like Meta and other U.S. social media platforms, Chinese tech companies also are increasingly outsourcing their content moderator workers to lower costs. Contract content moderation firms in the past five years have sprung up in second- or third-tier Chinese cities such as Jinan, Tianjin, Chengdu and Xi’an. To help expand their content moderation forces, the companies also lowered the education requirement for the workers. Liu told Protocol that when he was first hired as a content moderator for Weibo in 2011, all the new hires had college degrees. Today, it’s common for graduates of vocational schools or even high schools to get those jobs, he said.

“To some degree, a Chinese tech company's censorship mechanism determines the kind of social media product they can offer,” said Liu. “ByteDance is able to achieve a host of features in their products because of the size of their content moderation team.”

Fintech

Gensler: Bitcoin may be a commodity

The SEC has been vague about crypto. But Gensler said bitcoin is a commodity, “maybe.” It’s the clearest glimpse of his views on digital assets yet.

“Bitcoin — maybe that’s a commodity token. That has a big market value, but that goes over there,” Gensler said, referring to another regulator, the CFTC.

Photoillustration: Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images; Protocol

SEC Chair Gary Gensler has long argued that many cryptocurrencies are subject to regulation as securities.

But he recently clarified that this view wouldn’t apply to the best-known cryptocurrency, bitcoin.

Keep Reading Show less
Benjamin Pimentel

Benjamin Pimentel ( @benpimentel) covers crypto and fintech from San Francisco. He has reported on many of the biggest tech stories over the past 20 years for the San Francisco Chronicle, Dow Jones MarketWatch and Business Insider, from the dot-com crash, the rise of cloud computing, social networking and AI to the impact of the Great Recession and the COVID crisis on Silicon Valley and beyond. He can be reached at bpimentel@protocol.com or via Google Voice at (925) 307-9342.

Sponsored Content

Why the digital transformation of industries is creating a more sustainable future

Qualcomm’s chief sustainability officer Angela Baker on how companies can view going “digital” as a way not only toward growth, as laid out in a recent report, but also toward establishing and meeting environmental, social and governance goals.

Three letters dominate business practice at present: ESG, or environmental, social and governance goals. The number of mentions of the environment in financial earnings has doubled in the last five years, according to GlobalData: 600,000 companies mentioned the term in their annual or quarterly results last year.

But meeting those ESG goals can be a challenge — one that businesses can’t and shouldn’t take lightly. Ahead of an exclusive fireside chat at Davos, Angela Baker, chief sustainability officer at Qualcomm, sat down with Protocol to speak about how best to achieve those targets and how Qualcomm thinks about its own sustainability strategy, net zero commitment, other ESG targets and more.

Keep Reading Show less
Chris Stokel-Walker

Chris Stokel-Walker is a freelance technology and culture journalist and author of "YouTubers: How YouTube Shook Up TV and Created a New Generation of Stars." His work has been published in The New York Times, The Guardian and Wired.

Workplace

What the economic downturn means for pay packages

The war for talent rages on, but dynamics are shifting back to the employers.

Compensation packages could start to look different as companies reshuffle the balance of cash and equity.

Illustration: Nuthawut Somsuk/Getty Images

The market is turning. Tech stocks are slumping — which is bad news for employees — and even industry powerhouses are slowing hiring and laying people off. Tech talent is still in high demand, but compensation packages could start to look different as companies recruit.

“It’s a little bit like whiplash,” compensation consultant Ashish Raina said of the downturn. Raina, who mainly works with startups that have 200 to 800 employees, previously worked as the director of Talent at Index Ventures and head of Compensation and Talent Analytics at Box. “I do think there’s going to be an interesting reckoning in terms of pay increases going forward, how that pay is delivered.”

Keep Reading Show less
Allison Levitsky
Allison Levitsky is a reporter at Protocol covering workplace issues in tech. She previously covered big tech companies and the tech workforce for the Silicon Valley Business Journal. Allison grew up in the Bay Area and graduated from UC Berkeley.
Policy

How 'Zuck Bucks' saved the 2020 election — and fueled the Big Lie

The true story of how Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan’s $419 million donation became the 2020 election’s most enduring conspiracy theory.

Mark Zuckerberg is smack in the center of one of the 2020 election’s multitudinous conspiracies.

Illustration: Mike McQuade; Photos: Getty Images

If Mark Zuckerberg could have imagined the worst possible outcome of his decision to insert himself into the 2020 election, it might have looked something like the scene that unfolded inside Mar-a-Lago on a steamy evening in early April.

There in a gilded ballroom-turned-theater, MAGA world icons including Kellyanne Conway, Corey Lewandowski, Hope Hicks and former president Donald Trump himself were gathered for the premiere of “Rigged: The Zuckerberg Funded Plot to Defeat Donald Trump.”

Keep Reading Show less
Issie Lapowsky

Issie Lapowsky ( @issielapowsky) is Protocol's chief correspondent, covering the intersection of technology, politics, and national affairs. She also oversees Protocol's fellowship program. Previously, she was a senior writer at Wired, where she covered the 2016 election and the Facebook beat in its aftermath. Prior to that, Issie worked as a staff writer for Inc. magazine, writing about small business and entrepreneurship. She has also worked as an on-air contributor for CBS News and taught a graduate-level course at New York University's Center for Publishing on how tech giants have affected publishing.

Fintech

From frenzy to fear: Trading apps grapple with anxious investors

After riding the stock-trading wave last year, trading apps like Robinhood have disenchanted customers and jittery investors.

Retail stock trading is still an attractive business, as shown by the news that crypto exchange FTX is dipping its toes in the market by letting some U.S. customers trade stocks.

Photo: Lam Yik/Bloomberg via Getty Images

For a brief moment, last year’s GameStop craze made buying and selling stocks cool, even exciting, for a new generation of young investors. Now, that frenzy has turned to fear.

Robinhood CEO Vlad Tenev pointed to “a challenging macro environment” marked by rising prices and interest rates and a slumping market in a call with analysts explaining his company’s lackluster results. The downturn, he said, was something “most of our customers have never experienced in their lifetimes.”

Keep Reading Show less
Benjamin Pimentel

Benjamin Pimentel ( @benpimentel) covers crypto and fintech from San Francisco. He has reported on many of the biggest tech stories over the past 20 years for the San Francisco Chronicle, Dow Jones MarketWatch and Business Insider, from the dot-com crash, the rise of cloud computing, social networking and AI to the impact of the Great Recession and the COVID crisis on Silicon Valley and beyond. He can be reached at bpimentel@protocol.com or via Google Voice at (925) 307-9342.

Latest Stories
Bulletins