Bilibili Content Moderator’s Death Renews Debate About Overwork

A Bilibili content moderator’s death has renewed debate on China’s culture of overwork six months after the Supreme People’s Court ruled “996” working schedules illegal, and just a year after a young tech worker died in similar circumstances. The 25-year-old moderator, identified only by his screen name “Muse Muxin” in Bilibili’s announcement, died of a sudden brain aneurysm. At SupChina, Jiayun Feng reported on the rumor that the young employee died of overwork, and the tech company’s response to the rumor:

Rumors about the 25-year-old’s sudden death first started to swirl on February 7 when Weibo user Wáng Luò Běi @王落北 who discusses workplace issues and has nearly 5 million followers, said (in Chinese) that he had received multiple anonymous tips about a Bilibili employee leading an artificial-intelligence-powered content moderation team in Wuhan, the capital of Central China’s Hubei Province.

He was told that the young man died from a brain hemorrhage on the night of February 4 after working five overnight shifts in a row, with each starting at 9 p.m. and ending at 9 a.m. “Many people quit their jobs because Bilibili refused to pay extra for holiday shifts and denied their requests for time off during the Lunar Year Holiday,” a person who claimed to be a Bilibili worker wrote in a private message sent to the blogger, adding that the company was purposefully withholding the news of the death from its employees and seemed to have deleted the man’s profile from its employee database.

[…] In response to the accusations online, Bilibili wrote in the internal letter that an attendance check showed that the employee worked from 9:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. in the days leading up to the brain incident, which are considered “regular working hours” in the company. “We have created a special task team and have been working with the police and his family to follow up on the matter,” it wrote. “Everyone, please take care of yourself and let your supervisor know if you need some time off to rest or seek medical help.” [Source]

Bilibili’s denial was met with skepticism online. While the popular video streaming platform is famed for its playful work culture—“demerits” issued by an internal inspection team are referred to by a cutesy homophone, “Yosenabe,” a Japanese hot pot dish—work hours can be brutally long. An advertisement for a position in the Wuhan office where “Muse Muxin” worked clearly states that content moderators are expected to work twelve-hour shifts, sometimes late or overnight, and should have “relatively strong ability to withstand pressure.” China’s internet sites are under increased governmental pressure to tighten already stringent moderation policies. In the months leading up to the Chinese New Year, the Cyberspace Administration of China fined a number of major tech companies for lax censorship.

Bilibili is a video and gaming platform known for anime (of the infamously libertine variety until a 2018 crackdown), nationalist clickbait, and anime that doubles as nationalist clickbait. As of 2020, Bilibili employed 2,413 content moderators. According to company insiders, workers are divided into groups with three different work schedules: one group works the day shift, five days a week with two days off; another works from noon to midnight; and a third works from either two in the afternoon to two in the morning, or nine in the evening to nine the following morning. The latter two groups work every other day. They are tasked with removing everything—from the pornographic to the political—that falls afoul of site guidelines or government restrictions. In 2018, the company promised to recruit 36,000 “volunteer” censors, although the success of that effort remains unclear. The office that “Muse Muxin” worked out of was established in 2018 in response to the above-referenced crackdown on vulgarity.

An investigation by Liu Lutian, Zhu Likun, and Yao Yinmi of Late Post, a Chinese digital media outlet, provided an in-depth look at the work culture of Bilibili’s content moderation department. CDT has translated the following excerpt from the report, in which Late Post interviewed a former Bilibili employee who had held a position of nearly equivalent rank to “Muse Muxin,” albeit in a different office:

Before he left Bilibili, Tong Lijun was the interim leader of a moderation team. The job is a trial period for a promotion to moderation team leader. If it went as expected, he would have been promoted to team leader and received a commensurate raise in internal rank and salary. Among the management team, where “everything is a labor of love,” the burnout rate is noticeably high. Whereas previously, Tong could work on “even” days and take “odd” days off, after his promotion to interim team leader he was expected to come in on odd days to supervise another, separate, team’s work. Of his 15 allotted days off, he was expected to show up for work on approximately seven of them. This was not reflected on his timesheet, nor was it technically considered “overtime.”

The greatest pressure came from managing the team. Team leaders are expected to track the volume and accuracy of content moderated by over 30 team members, as well as their monthly test scores (an internal test of job knowledge and time spent in training sessions). They are then expected to compare these data points with a chart produced by a department specifically tasked with scoring employees. The results affect each employee’s monthly rating, making the accounting period extremely nerve-wracking.

Upper management’s demands fall on team leaders’ shoulders. The phrase that makes all team-leaders fraught with anxiety is “human efficiency.”

When management is at its most stringent, team leaders are expected to check their team’s data every two hours. This process is called “chasing human efficiency.” The team leader must then discuss “remedies” with the worst-performing employee. Tong didn’t dare push his team members too hard because his greatest fear was that they would quit. His performance was in part graded on his “talent-preservation rate,” which stipulated that he was to ensure a very low monthly attrition rate. But after a month of “one day on, one day off” night shifts, every team loses at least five to six people who simply cannot stand the pace.

After a month as an interim team leader, Tong Lijun was on the verge of a breakdown. The day he decided to turn in his resignation was the hottest time of year in the south [where he was working]. The company had mandated a two-day management-level training course which required full attendance, on top of which team leaders were expected to pull an overnight shift (from 9:30 pm to 9:30 am the following day).

At noon on the first day, Tong asked for leave from the night shift so that he could get eight hours of sleep. The company leadership told him to “just hang in there a bit longer,” and suggested that he move up his leave request by an hour and a half so that he could start on the 8:00 am shift […] Tong figured that this was because the leadership didn’t want him to miss the morning data announcement, so he had no choice but to do as they asked. In order to finish his monthly report on his team members’ grades, he pulled overtime again, and headed home at 4:00 am. He only slept four hours that night.

By noon the following day, Tong began to feel pressure in his chest and shortness of breath. He felt like his heart was pounding so loudly that it drowned out the sounds of the meeting. When he sent a message informing his bosses of this, he received the same response as before: “Just hang in there a bit longer.” In the middle of a meeting about how team leaders can become even better managers, Tong dashed out of the room, wept at his desk, and turned in his resignation.

Tong told Late Post that censorship teams’ work schedules vary, but he guesses that the team that [Muse Muxin] worked on, the Graphics and Text Censorship Team, must have been even more “involuted” [or burnout -prone] than his own. When he was working overtime shifts, Tong was always told, “Over at Graphics and Texts, the overtime is even worse.” [Chinese]

In response to the outcry over the content moderator’s death, Bilibili announced that it would hire 1,000 new content moderators.

Overwork is an endemic problem in the Chinese tech world. In 2021, ByteDance instituted a “1075” work schedule, 10am to 7pm, five days a week. Yet not all companies have embraced the new push for moderation. At the South China Morning Post, Iris Deng reported on a Tencent employee’s anger over the company’s praise for 20-hour work days:

In his own account of the event that took place on Tuesday evening and was widely circulated online, Fole Zhang Yifei said he criticised his team’s praise of a colleague working “20 consecutive hours at high intensity” to release a promotional page and another “week of consecutive work” to make over 200 modifications to a product design. Zhang works on the team behind WeCom, Tencent’s workplace app.

[…] On Wednesday, WeCom head Ted Huang Tieming, one of the managers Zhang targeted, said in the company’s internal forum that long working hours are “not sustainable”. He also thanked Zhang, who joined the team two months ago, for bringing up the issue, according to two company sources.

[…] The incident was one of the most-searched topics on China’s microblogging platform Weibo on Wednesday, with more than 250 million views and 320,000 discussions around the topic. Many netizens expressed their admiration for Zhang’s stand against the tech giant, calling him a “hero”. [Source]

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