Death of Bilibili content auditor revives debate on China’s overwork culture

The recent death of an online content auditor in China has brought attention to the toil of the occupation that has emerged in the internet age.

A 25-year-old man who monitored content at Chinese video streaming site Bilibili suddenly passed away on February 5 during Chinese New Year, allegedly after working from 9 am to 9 pm through the national holiday, according to posts by a Weibo user who claimed to have been tipped by people familiar with the matter.

Within hours, the posts on the microblogging platform attracted tens of thousands of views and sparked a new wave of online outcry over the overwork culture that’s endemic to China’s tech industry.

Since its launch in 2009, Bilibili has morphed from a niche safe haven for sub-cultures to a popular video sharing site that boasted 270 million monthly active users as of September.

The ballooning community means it has a lot more videos to vet. Behind China’s sprawling online censorship regime is a large army of moderators employed by WeChat, TikTok, Weibo and content platforms of the like. These auditors often toil away for long hours in front of the computer, flagging and removing “illegal and harmful” user posts. Because of its intense and menial nature, the occupation has been described as being on the “production line” of the internet age. And as with factory jobs, purging content all day long comes at a cost to workers’ health.

In a response to the overwork allegations, Bilibili said the week before the employee’s death, he had worked the standard hours — eight hours a day, five days a week — and the company tripled his pay for working during the holiday according to the law.

“The content security moderation job he had is an around-the-clock, special job. Like other public services, content security can’t stop even during the Chinese New Year holiday,” the statement read.

This explanation of course would not assuage the enraged public. To “prevent similar tragedies,” Bilibili said, it would “make proactive improvement” to the health of its content auditing team. In doing so, it plans to add 1,000 moderators this year to “reduce their average workload” and introduce “enhanced health checkups” to staff in the department.

The Weibo user who first posted about the death of the Bilibili employee said in a post that the video streaming giant has issued him a lawyer’s letter. The user, whose screen name is “Wang Luobei”, has nearly 5 million followers on Weibo. Bilibili has not responded to TechCrunch’s inquiry about the lawyer’s letter.