Tech workers angered as Bilibili censors posts after employee’s death

Society & Culture

Short video platform Bilibili is the target of online ire from China’s burned out tech workers and their sympathizers after the death of an employee who worked on content moderation died from brain hemorrhage. Bilbili’s response was to censor the discussion.

People visit the stand of Chinese online video sharing and entertainment service Bilibili Inc. during an expo in Shanghai. Chen Yuyu/Reuters

A man who headed a content moderation department at Chinese video-streaming site Bilibili died last week after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage while working a Lunar New Year holiday shift. Although the company denied overwork was the main cause of the young employee’s death and promised to support his family, several accounts by people close to the matter have painted a different picture of the situation, which they claim involved a grueling work schedule and an utter lack of empathy from the employer.

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.

The information immediately touched a special nerve among Chinese internet users, reminding many of the deaths of several workers in China’s tech industry, including a 22-year-old employee at ecommerce firm Pinduoduo and a 30-year-old renowned game engineer at TiMi Studio, a subsidiary of Tencent Games. Tired of feeling burned out and mistreated, Chinese workers — especially those in the country’s tech sector — have become increasingly vocal and assertive in demanding better working conditions. On social media, the overwork culture has become a source of outrage and profound frustration to many, with a slew of companies promising to introduce policies to ensure better work-life balance for their employees.

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As attention on Bilibili grew, the company confirmed the employee’s death in an internal memo (in Chinese) on Monday. Sent from Bilibili’s content security center, an in-house unit that reviews content uploaded by users, the email explained that the deceased employee, who joined the company in 2019 and worked in the image and text moderation department at the center, felt unwell on the afternoon of February 4 and was taken to a nearby hospital, where he was pronounced dead later that day due to a cerebral hemorrhage. 

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.” 

However, internet users discovered that Bilibili’s explanation of the employee’s work schedule contradicted the job description of his position. On recruitment sites, the company says that the man’s post entails irregular arrangements, including overnight and 12-hour shifts. The job post also explicitly states that ideal candidates should be willing to “work overnight” and be capable of handling “high pressure.”

Bilibili’s handling of the employee’s death was also called into question by his family. On Weibo, a woman who introduced herself as the man’s cousin accused the company of falling short in its communication with the family and refusing to bear responsibility for the young man’s death. “So far no one from the company has sent condolences to us or reached out to schedule a meeting. I wasn’t planning to speak up because I wanted to seek justice for my cousin through legal action,” the person wrote (in Chinese). “But after some people told me that Bilibili already deleted my cousin’s employee profile and purged his attendance record, I felt I had to say something now.”

Meanwhile, discussions about the employee’s death were prohibited not only inside the company but also on its platform. According to reporters at China Youth Daily (in Chinese), their submissions of two videos related to the incident were rejected by Bilibili, which called the clips “too controversial.” At the time of writing, no information about the employee’s death can be found on Bilibili, likely a result of sitewide censorship.

As the controversy continued to grow, Bilibili released a follow-up statement (in Chinese) on Tuesday, saying that it would hire 1,000 additional content moderators this year to make the workload more manageable for its employees, and also set up workplace counseling to promote employees’ well-being.

Content moderation is a notoriously messy and expensive process, with large internet  companies spending billions to review and filter an endless stream of content every day. While Western companies like Facebook and Twitter outsource most of the grueling work to thousands of workers at third-party companies, Bilibili, a Nasdaq-listed streaming site, directly hires a sizable legion of over 2,400 content moderators, who account for roughly 30% of the company’s current head count. 

In recent years, there’s been a steady drip of reporting in Western media on how the work of content moderation is grim, often subjecting the reviewers to a never-ending firehose of graphic, violent, and obscene content, causing them health issues such as post-traumatic stress and exhaustion. These findings were corroborated by a number of Chinese content moderators, who said they felt compelled to speak up after learning about their fellow reviewer’s death at Bilibili. 

“What we are doing is basically exchanging life for money. It was normal for me to work 12 or 13 hours a day when I worked as a content moderator at ByteDance,” a person wrote (in Chinese) on Weibo. Another person, who claimed to be a current employee at ByteDance, said (in Chinese) that he is expected to review more than 500 videos on Douyin every day, which makes him feel like an “​​assembly line worker” and want to “throw up.”