Dozens of virtual broadcasters on China’s YouTube-like video-streaming platform Bilibili woke up to debt on 28 June following the platform’s announcement of a mandatory refund of rewards tipped by underage users. The notice soon made waves on the platform which has seen a rapid growth of virtual hosts in recent years as a result of the increasing interest in virtual characters amongst its largely young audience base, where the average age of its 220 million+ monthly active users is 22.8 years old.
It is reported that the amount of money required to be returned ranges from 0.05 RMB ($0.0075) to more than 140,000 RMB ($20,922), throwing channel hosts behind those craved virtual characters into deep water. This has paralysed influencers, particularly those in the middle and lower-tiers, slashing their live stream generated income for several months.
The total refund due will be shared equally between Bilibili and individuals following the platform’s monetising policies. Rewards will be returned in the format of “Jin Cang Shu” (or “Golden Hamster”, a common currency used on Bilibili), which cannot be topped up through money. This means debtors will have to carry on earning rewards from viewers through live streaming with the uncertainty of being tipped by minors expected to continue.
The action taken is in the wake of the introduction of China’s Opinions on Strengthening Regulations in Online Livestreaming Tipping for the Protection of Minors earlier in May. Platforms are required to take more responsibility to prevent minors’ involvement in virtual gifting activities through measures such as implementing real-name registration and management and set a cap on rewards given to hosts.
Content creators have also come under closer scrutiny and those found to have enticed underage users into giving rewards are at risk of account termination. In addition, it also states that all rewards gained from violations of these regulations shall be returned.
While outcry soon broke out amongst the concerned virtual hosts, Bilibili has also been in the hot seat and being held accountable for not having an established system to identify underaged users and allowing rewards to be given in the first place. This came after one broadcaster revealed evidence of him trying to figure out the identity of a “generous” fan who claimed to be “a developer with decent salary” after receiving “a considerable amount” of monetary rewards but given the difficulties platform users face in identity verification, the caution didn’t save him from the latest dilemma.
Public support has been shown to virtual hosts with netizens believing the platform should take full responsibility for failing to pinpoint underaged users and argued hosts shouldn’t be punished for the platform’s system loophole. The controversy has once again shown both individuals and platforms will have to practise greater self-censorship to be compliant with the ever-tougher regulations on China’s live streaming industry.