ByteDance, the parent of the viral short video app TikTok, has been in the hot seat in China, amidst accusations of exploiting the five female employees behind the viral virtual idol group A-SOUL that was launched jointly with its invested arm Yuehua Entertainment in 2020.
The controversy emerged after the sudden announcement of the group’s “live stream dormancy” on 10 May by A-SOUL’s management team through their official account on Bilibili (China’s equivalent to YouTube). The “indefinite hiatus” is related to one of the group’s members – Carol, which concerns her “health and academic plans”, the post explained. A live stream concert scheduled for 20 May at 8 PM to send well wishes to the beloved member has also been called off, it added.
The doubt around a virtual being’s “health and academic” issues was soon cleared as it was discovered that behind the superficial digital masks, there are five real-life female individuals who are trainees at Yuehua Entertainment. With the support of real-time motion capture equipment, they give life to these virtual idols, allowing them to sing, dance, and perform on live streams like a real human being, such as playing games and interacting with fans.
Born in 2020, the group soon amassed 1.9 million and 337,000 followers on Weibo (China’s largest microblogging site) and Bilibili respectively, thanks to the synergy between the animated faces and likeable personalities presented by these women together with enthusiastic online activities.
As China has seen the nation’s fever for virtual influencers grow in the past two years, the commercial value for the virtual idols’ soars too, with brand collaborations including global labels such as L’Oréal, KFC and KEEP, pulling up the revenue generated from virtual influencer related businesses for Yuehua Entertainment by 79.6% to 37.8 million RMB ($5.6 million) in 2021, up from 21.1 million RMB ($3.1 million)in 2020.
However, none of the momentum A-SOUL holds so far has benefited the girls behind the scenes. On the contrary, they have turned out to be a tool for the company to leverage China’s digital hype. It is understood that for every 138 RMB ($20.45) tipped by viewers during a live broadcast, only 0.6 RMB goes to the member.
Moreover, according to an anonymous source at ByteDance, the average monthly salary paid to the five trainees is between 12,000 and 14,000 RMB ($1,426 and $1,663). Despite the figure being somewhat reasonable, it is reported that their workloads far exceed what they are paid for. Such intense work arrangements have been imposed on these individuals to allow the virtual idols to be active 24/7, ultimately leading to the poor health of the trainees.
In addition, criticism has emerged around other unfair treatment including privacy violations and workplace PUA (pick-up artist – a situation where a boss or senior staff member conducts manipulating behaviour towards their colleagues), which is believed to have resulted in ‘Carol’s departure’.
The episode soon sparked public outrage, with Internet users launching online campaigns demanding A-SOUL’s management team respond publicly to the above accusations, propelling hashtags such as ‘A-SOUL members face PUA’, ‘Boycott ByteDance for exploiting employees’ and ‘How to set salary for virtual beings’ to the hot searches on Weibo, drawing in tens of millions of views.
A-SOUL’s production committee apologised on 14 May providing explanations about the payment dispute. While denying all other allegations, the statement does not provide any details regarding corresponding matters, which has been viewed as “avoiding the important and dwelling on the trivial”. ByteDance, on the other hand, has made no comment on the ongoing dispute at the time of publication.
The latest controversy, therefore, has brought existing issues over the industry’s current approach to virtual influencers to the forefront. Finding the right balance between the commercial value of digital characters and better protection of the rights of those who act behind the screen has emerged as an urgent challenge for players in the sector, should human beings have to continue to be employed to enable the full capability of virtual beings.