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People Are Mad About Facebook’s WhatsApp’s Privacy Policies



Indranil Mukherjee / Getty Images

Newspapers with front page advertisements of Facebook’s WhatsApp in a Mumbai newspaper stall.

Over the last week, nearly 2 billion people around the world who use WhatsApp, the Facebook-owned instant messaging service, were greeted with a giant pop-up when they launched the app.

“WhatsApp is updating its terms and privacy policy,” it said.

Clicking through led to a 4,000-word privacy policy, which states that WhatsApp will now reserve the right to share data such as phone numbers, IP addresses, and payments made through the app with Facebook and other Facebook-owned platforms like Instagram. It also says that if people use WhatsApp to talk with businesses that use Facebook’s hosting technology to manage those chats, those messages could be used by the business to target people with ads on Facebook.

Unless people agree to these new terms, they will be locked out of WhatsApp on Feb. 8.

Online, the backlash was swift. “Use Signal,” tweeted Tesla CEO Elon Musk to his 42 million followers, referring to the open source WhatsApp alternative popular with people who deal with sensitive information like journalists and activists. “I use [Signal] every day and I’m not dead yet,” tweeted American whistleblower Edward Snowden. In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s media office and the country’s defense ministry announced that they were dropping WhatsApp after the policy changes, and opened a probe into the move.

Signal became the top free app on both Google and Apple’s app stores in most countries around the world. More than 8,800,000 people downloaded Signal on iPhones and Android phones in the week of Jan. 4, compared to just 246,000 people the week before, according to data analytics firm Sensor Tower. Telegram, another WhatsApp alternative, said on Tuesday that more than 25 million people had joined in the last 72 hours.

📈 More than 5M people downloaded #Signal this weekend, after @elonmusk and @Snowden tweeted about it 😱 👁‍🗨 #privacy #whatsapp

Our report 👉


“I was concerned about my privacy,” J. Paul, a marketing professional from Mumbai who only wanted to be identified by the initial of his first name, told BuzzFeed News. “Facebook monetizes its products in ways that are invasive for users.”

Besides Facebook itself, WhatsApp is Facebook’s largest and most popular service. In markets like Brazil and India, the app is the default way of communication for hundreds of millions of people. But so far, Facebook, which paid $22 billion to acquire it in 2014, has kept it largely independent and hasn’t tried to make money off of it. Now, that’s changing.

“We remain committed to the privacy and security of people’s private messages,” a WhatsApp spokesperson told BuzzFeed News, and offered a link to a page that the company put up earlier this week explaining the new policy. “The best way to sustain end-to-end encryption for the long run is to have a business model that protects people’s private communication.”

The page says that WhatsApp thinks messaging with businesses is different than messaging with friends and family, and breaks down data that the company might share with Facebook in the future.

The new privacy policy will let Facebook, which made more than $21 billion in revenue in the last quarter of 2020 from targeting ads at people, use WhatsApp to make even more money. But doing so means trying to get the app’s large user base to fork over more data — and could risk sending many of them to competitors instead.

“If you spent $22 billion acquiring something, sooner or later, shareholders want you to monetize that asset,” Mishi Choudhary, a technology lawyer and online civil liberties activist based in New York, told BuzzFeed News.

WhatsApp, started by two former Yahoo employees, Jan Koum and Brian Acton, originally charged people a dollar a year. After Facebook made the app free to use, growth exploded. For the first few years after it purchased the app in 2014, Facebook largely left WhatsApp alone. But in 2018, it launched WhatsApp Business, which let businesses use WhatsApp to communicate with customers. For the first time, Facebook wanted WhatsApp to start generating revenue.

Over the last year, WhatsApp has added more business-facing features, such as flight tickets and shopping receipts, catalogs, and payments. WhatsApp said there are more than 50 million businesses on the platform, and more than 175 million people message a business on the app each day.

“They want WhatsApp to become a payment service and a shopping portal, yet another aspect of your life that will be covered by Facebook’s data collection efforts,” Devdutta Mukhopadhyay, a lawyer at the Internet Freedom Foundation, a nonprofit organization that works to protect digital liberties, told BuzzFeed News. “That’s what their latest privacy policy changes are about.”

“I don’t trust Facebook,” Paul said. He recently deactivated his Facebook account, although he still uses Instagram and WhatsApp. “I am required to be on it, but I do not trust it,” he said.

Trust in WhatsApp has eroded since Facebook bought it. Koum defended selling the app to Facebook in a 2014 blog post, stating that the company wasn’t interested in people’s personal data. “If partnering with Facebook meant that we had to change our values, we wouldn’t have done it,” he wrote. Two years later, however, WhatsApp announced that it would start sharing some data, including phone numbers and the last time people used the service with Facebook — a move for which the European Union fined it 110 million euros.

Swept up in the current backlash is misinformation. A large number of people didn’t realize that WhatsApp’s new privacy policy applied only to chats with businesses and not to private conversations with friends and family, and urged others to boycott the app.

“I honestly don’t think that most people who are currently rage-switching to Signal or Telegram have actually read the new privacy policy,” said Mukhopadhyay. “Regardless of what complex legal documents say, people’s lived experiences are telling them that they cannot trust companies like Facebook with their data.”

In response, Facebook is going on a charm offensive. In India, which is the company’s largest market with more than 400 million users, the company splashed the front pages of major national newspapers with full-page ads clarifying that it couldn’t see people’s private messages or listen to their calls. “Respect for your privacy is coded into our DNA,” WhatsApp’s ad said, echoing a line from Koum’s 2014 blog post.

Top Facebook executives, like the head of Instagram and Facebook’s head of virtual reality, have tweeted in support of the app.

On Friday, Will Cathcart, the head of WhatsApp, also wrote a series of tweets, emphasizing how the company couldn’t see people’s personal chats and that the new privacy policy applied to messages with businesses only.

“It’s important for us to be clear this update describes business communication and does not change WhatsApp’s data sharing practices with Facebook,” he wrote. “It does not impact how people communicate privately with friends or family wherever they are in the world.”

Cathcart did not respond to a request for comment from BuzzFeed News.

Despite the outcry, ditching WhatsApp in countries like India could be hard. Paul, the marketing professional from Mumbai, said he’d keep using the app until he has urged everyone he knows to move to Signal.

“It’s not an easy sell,” he said, “because of how convenient WhatsApp is.”

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Page refresh: how the internet is transforming the novel | Fiction




Towards the end of 2020, a year spent supine on my sofa consuming endless internet like a force-fed goose, I managed to finish a beautifully written debut novel: Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson, which comes out next month. And yet despite the entrancing descriptions, I could barely turn two pages before my hand moved reflexively toward the cracked screen of my phone. Each time I returned to the novel I felt ashamed, and the shame only grew as I realised that, somehow, though the story was set in the present, and involved an often long-distance romance between two young people with phones, it contained not one single reference to what by then I considered a hallmark of present-day humanity: mindless scrolling through social media.

There was something sepia-toned about the book thanks to this absence, recalling love stories from previous eras even as it spoke powerfully to more urgent contemporary issues. Azumah Nelson’s narrator mentions phones in the context of calls and private text messages, but the characters are never sullied by association with Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. Was this because they were too sensible, ethical or self-assured to use such things, or is the omnipresence of these platforms now so implicit, in literature as in life, that they hardly seemed worth mentioning?

After an initial froideur, followed by some adolescent fumblings, fiction’s embrace of social media has now fully come of age. The success of outliers such as Tao Lin’s Taipei (in which the internet is perhaps the most potent of all the many drugs its protagonists ingest) and Dave Eggers’s The Circle (a dystopian exploration of big tech’s assault on privacy), both published in 2013, paved the way for Jarett Kobek’s I Hate the Internet, which riffed on the way the internet perplexes the literary novel, 2017’s Sympathy (my debut, about the ways our identity and actions are shaped by surveillance in the internet age), 2018’s Twitter refreshing Crudo by Olivia Laing, and Matthew Sperling’s aptly named 2020 novel Viral, a satirical takedown of a social media startup.

It’s clear that the digital colonisation of the literary world has not resulted in its predicted death, but an exciting evolution. We are hungry for writers who can parse our present, whether in essay form, in works such as Jia Tolentino’s collection Trick Mirror (2019) and Legacy Russell’s Glitch Feminism: A Manifesto (2020) or the fiction about to hit our shelves (or Kindle screens) that put social media front and centre.

The Circle, directed by James ponsoldt, adapted from the Dave Eggers novel.
The Circle, directed by James Ponsoldt, adapted from the Dave Eggers novel. Photograph: Frank Masi/Allstar/Lionsgate/StudioCanal

Characters in today’s novels are more likely to surprise us if they don’t use social media. This is often put down to their age, or pious superiority, or eccentricity, or something very sinister in their past. In Raven Leilani’s debut Luster, the narrator’s older love interest (met via online dating) uses “retired internet slang”, and is “not even on Twitter”. Unlike with men her own age, she cannot track his “formative development online”, and this adds to his allure.

Similarly, in Lauren Oyler’s forthcoming Fake Accounts, the narrator’s boyfriend appears to have minimal internet presence (suspicious), then turns out to have a secret online avatar with a considerable Instagram following. A famous author in Rebecca Watson’s little scratch who is not on social media is described as seeming like “a dead writer”. Meanwhile, in Patricia Lockwood’s debut novel No One Is Talking About This (published next month) the protagonist knows only two living people without a digital trail – a former school friend, who seems to have escaped into a parallel universe offline, and her own newborn niece. It’s a book Lockwood described (on Twitter) as “about being very inside the internet and then being very outside of it”.

Working on my novel about social media (which I started in 2014), I remember receiving numerous comments to the effect that such superficial features of what I considered to be “real life” would render it unserious and obsolete. Now, social media has taken over our lives to the extent that references to it in fiction furnish contemporary characters with plausibility, even humanity.

While the internet and mobile phones initially posed problems for fiction writers – not least for their potential to destroy traditional plots of desire and obstruction (chance encounters, missed connections, quests), the dangers of such instant gratification increasingly appear to spark the plot itself (as in Megha Majumdar’s A Burning, where a careless tweet sets off a dangerous train of events) and offer novels a natural home, so long as they’re game for a little renovation. As Watson wrote recently: “When I started writing … incorporating this digital compulsion was one of the first issues I ran into. I was writing a book that aimed to follow the mind of a woman in her 20s, non-stop, so ignoring it would be a plot hole. But quickly, I found that it opened up my protagonist, created a portal to others while still keeping her isolated. It inspired me to shake up form; the pressures of an age of distraction making me break up prose into columns and fragments.”

As with all renovations-in-progress, (and perhaps I use this metaphor as it seems to be a burgeoning genre on Instagram) alterations afford us a glimpse of how the novel works – which pipes go where, which walls are load-bearing – as both the structural elements and stylistic choices are rendered visible. Reading Watson’s little scratch the reader must clamber over and around London Underground announcements, texts, TripAdvisor reviews, scraps of other people’s writing, emails, snippets of conversation, unspoken thoughts, sounds and sensory impressions scattered across the page with little in the way of signposting.

Jia Tolentino.
Jia Tolentino. Photograph: Arturo Holmes/Getty Images

With no predetermined way to navigate the text, the novel could be compared to the endless tabs and incongruous juxtapositions of digital life, or it could just be like living now, as writers such as Virginia Woolf (referenced repeatedly in both Oyler and Lockwood’s novels) used a stream of consciousness to convey the experience of 20th-century living. These days, and especially post 2020, there is little meaningful distinction between digital life and life anyway. As Lockwood’s narrator notes: “This did not feel like real life, exactly, but nowadays what did?”

That terms such as “real life” and “digital life” still exist in tension, despite the extent to which they overlap, is indicative of social media’s contradictions. Connection and isolation, homogeneity and fragmentation, exposure and concealment, the order and simultaneous incoherence of the timeline … the list is both familiar and endless. And yet our familiarity with social media can preclude critical understanding of it. Novels, by contrast, allow us to step outside our habitual experience and reflect on what it means that “real life” has been so swiftly overtaken by the virtual. Lockwood, for example, calls it “the portal” rather than the internet, to purposefully estrange the reader: “It was in this place where we were on the verge of losing our bodies that bodies became the most important. You were zoomed in on the grain, you were out in space, it was the brotherhood of man, and in some ways you had never been flung further from each other.”

In Watson’s novel, such dualities are woven together in a helix, pointing to the nature of trauma as much as digital experience, but where the once separate worlds of work and home, say, might have permitted a way to compartmentalise and so navigate certain dangerous triggers, the breaching of stable boundaries (exemplified by the narrator’s rape), make it harder to escape intrusive thoughts. The membrane that suggests a separate outer and inner life is her skin, which she scratches compulsively until it’s raw and bleeding. The urge to scratch, like the urge to scroll, provides temporary relief (opening a new tab to find a dog on Twitter wearing a backpack is at least a means of distraction, not dissimilar to picking a scab), before worsening the condition.

As in Lockwood and Oyler’s novels, the claustrophobia of being trapped in one’s own head alternates with the agoraphobia and disorientation of being (trapped) online, immersed in the collective mind of everyone else. No equilibrium can be reached when the two scales are so vastly mismatched. Oyler’s narrator is always conscious of performing for “an audience that might as well have been everyone in the world for all your brain could comprehend”. Lockwood’s protagonist lies “every morning under an avalanche of details, the world pressing closer and closer, the spiderweb of human connection grown so thick it was almost a shimmering and solid silk”. Oyler’s narrator suffers from the panic of sleep paralysis (mirroring her waking experience of scrolling). Even when she is awake, it is as though the body has become two dimensional. The husband of Lockwood’s protagonist comes up behind her “while she was repeating the words no, no, no or help, help, help under her breath. ‘Are you locked in?’ he would ask, and she would nod, and then do the thing that always broke her out somehow which was to google beautiful brown pictures of roast chickens – maybe because that’s what women used to do with their days.”

These are scenes that do not typically lend themselves to fictional description or plot: a character who is outwardly inert, invisibly experiencing a kind of overload. Lockwood’s protagonist’s face has a “totally dead look”, as her husband describes it, when engaged in “mortal combat with someone online, despite the fact moments like this are when she feels most alive”. That her husband has such a different impression of this scene is emblematic of how characters in these novels, to varying, often darkly comic degrees, struggle to communicate and sustain intimacy. No other person, not even a husband, can ever know you as well as your phone. Your phone, in fact, knows you better than you know yourself and alerts you whenever “YOU HAVE A NEW MEMORY”. It’s not much of a stretch to say the phone could just as easily be the narrator.

Lauren Oyler.
Lauren Oyler. Photograph: Maria Spann/The Observer

Social media inflected novels are overwhelmingly narrated in the first person or the close third with relentless self-awareness, in the style of confessional essays and blogs. Their protagonists scrutinise themselves through the eyes of imagined strangers, pre-empting critique so that such hyper-connection actually breeds a particular brand of interiority. This is true at the thriller end of the spectrum also: husband and wife duo Ellery Lloyd’s People Like Her, a cautionary tale of influencer culture, relies partly on multiple first person perspectives to drive the plot.

In terms of form, social media has shaped contemporary fiction, even in novels that make scant mention of it. The dominant trend is to tell a story through fragments. Sometimes these make a point of concision – only a paragraph, or even one line, which of course makes social media comparison easy, while others may be the length of a blog. Each fragment possesses no obvious bearing on the next, juxtaposing random facts with news articles, wry observation of a stranger on a commute followed by an unrelated emotional confession, in the manner of one individual’s Twitter timeline. It’s that first person voice that has to do the work of holding these fragments together, but it also makes allowances for internet-eroded concentration spans, our inability to stick to linear paths of thought.

Oyler’s narrator calls this “trendy style melodramatic, insinuating utmost meaning where there was only hollow prose in its attempts to reflect the world as a sequence of distinct and clearly formed ideas, it ran counter to how reality actually worked.” She later switches to parodying the style herself, which did, at least, make it easier for me to check my phone between paragraphs. The other trend does not, demanding you read its long, run-on sentences without even stopping to breathe. This is a tightly controlled art form in Luster, which reminded me of the knowingly tl;dr (too long, didn’t read) variety of Instagram caption.

Lockwood’s narrator also uses and self-consciously notes the prevalence of this style: “Why were we all writing like this now? Because a new kind of connection had to be made, and blink, synapse, little space-between was the only way to make it. Or because, and this was more frightening, it was the way the portal wrote.” This uniform way of speaking, as recognisable as those clapping emoji hands between words, illustrates how, as Lockwood writes, if the internet was once “the place where you sounded like yourself. Gradually it had become the place where we sounded like each other, through some erosion of wind or water on a self not nearly as firm as stone.” Add to this homogenisation the sociological phenomenon of “context collapse” (sharing everything online with everyone and without distinction), and the capacity to “break the internet” by going viral, and we are ourselves broken into pieces, flattened out, sprayed through an atomiser, losing our own specificity, our own voices.

Emmy, the influencer at the centre of People Like Her, is accused by a formerly loyal friend of having become “2D” like her photos. Not a person anymore, “just a phony caption and a posed photo. A fucking invention.” Emmy has crafted a persona, or a personal brand, that is the “perfectly imperfect” Instagram mother, “Mamabare”, aiming for relatability rather than reality. It’s a Faustian pact she has made, selling her own soul as well as those of her friends and family, so that when an Instagram “role player” begins to steal photos of her daughter and use them to craft their own fantasy life online, Emmy has little in the way of a moral high ground, or recourse. Even Emmy’s furious husband admits this is a trap of his wife’s own making, and that the role-player presents “a pretty convincing pastiche of the way that all Instamums, my wife included, write. The mangled metaphors, the breathless over-enthusiasm. The ingenuous clunkiness. The alliteration.” Emmy has become so successful at influencing people to be like her, they have literally started to usurp her.

Plenty of social media novels explore the possibilities of pretending to be someone else, devising personas or even knowingly assuming someone else’s identity, as in 2018’s Social Creature by Tara Isabella Burton. This kind of thing is still considered extreme behaviour, but more recent novels such as People Like Her highlight how much that “personality” we think of as our own is being determined by algorithm and then harvested for data. As Lockwood’s narrator puts it, this is “the stream-of-consciousness that is not entirely your own, that you participate in but also acts upon you”. Participating involves a metastasis whereby “a person might join a site to look at pictures of her nephew and five years later believe in a flat earth.”

Our offline lives turn out to be just as much of a lie as our online ones. Having discovered her boyfriend’s deception online, Oyler’s narrator agrees “manipulative insincerity was a fair response to the way the world was”. She sets up a plan involving dating apps as “a purposeful critique of the system. I could be anyone I wanted (or did not want, as the case may be) and my deception would not be selfish, cruelly manipulative of innocents looking for love, but a rebellion against an entire mode of thinking, which was not really thinking at all, just accepting whatever was advertised to you.” Because there is no way out, the characters of these novels usually decide it’s better to be an agent of their own techno-dystopian futures than simply a victim of them. It’s enough to make you put down your phone and read a book.

Asylum Road by Olivia Sudjic is published by Bloomsbury (£14.99).

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NBC Sports Network will cease operations in 2021




Ivan Provorov #9 of the Philadelphia Flyers plays the puck against Brad Marchand #63 of the Boston Bruins during the first period in a Round Robin game during the 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Playoff at Scotiabank Arena on August 02, 2020 in Toronto, Ontario.

Mark Blinch | National Hockey League | Getty Images

The NBC Sports Network is shutting down.

The network will stop operations by the end of 2021, a person familiar with the plan confirmed to CNBC. NBC will transfer its sports media rights, including the National Hockey League, to USA Network. The person spoke to CNBC on condition of anonymity as the individual isn’t allowed to comment publicly on the matter. Both networks are owned by CNBC parent company NBCUniversal.

The plan to halt operations will allow NBC to attract more reach for its sports content. USA Network is available in 86 million homes, while NBCSN has an estimated 80 million household reach.

NBCUniversal initially hoped NBC Sports Network would be its response to Disney‘s ESPN — a cable sports network that could justify high affiliate fees from pay-TV distributors because of its popular sports content. Twenty-first Century Fox developed Fox Sports 1 and CBS introduced CBS Sports Network for similar reasons.

But none of the cable sports networks have ever seriously threatened ESPN, and the media industry’s move toward streaming video has made linear sports networks anachronistic. NBCUniversal is considering shutting down several networks, CNBC reported in October, to consolidate its best assets in fewer networks. Shuttering underperforming cable networks could allow legacy media companies to keep the shrinking cable bundle afloat while maintaining subscription revenue by boosting fees for its existing networks.

The network started in the 1990s as the Outdoor Life Network, then was rebranded to Versus in 2006. Comcast owned the network when it took over NBCUniversal in 2011, and rebranded it as the NBC Sports Network at that time.

NHL playoff games, a selection of NASCAR races, and Premier League content will transfer to USA Network after NBCSN closes.

The Stamford, Connecticut-based network took over NHL rights with a 10-year, $2 billion package in 2011. The agreement runs through the current 2020-21 season.

NBCSN also has a $4.4 billion rights package with NASCAR that expires in 2024 and coming up on its renewal option with European’s soccer Premier League rights (worth roughly $1 billion). The network moved some of those games to NBC’s streaming service, Peacock, last year.

Back to the future

Longtime sports media rights advisor Lee Berke said the move is “back to the future” for USA Network airing sports content. The channel was originally a national distribution arm for Madison Square Garden Sports Network, airing sports content including the National Basketball Association until 1984.

“The fact that sports is returning to USA isn’t a new concept,” Berke told CNBC in an interview on Friday. “Certainly the distribution is helpful but this move is reflective of a couple of things — the pay TV bundle is shrinking. Subscriber base is shrinking. So, it justifies fewer networks to be on the air and the other part of it is the growth of streaming.”

Berke, the CEO of LHB Sports, a sports consultancy firm, said streaming trends is forcing network to reinvent themselves “as consumer viewing behavior changes. The was a migration of sports from broadcast to cable over the past 20, 30 years when pay TV became bigger and bigger. And now you’re seeing sports migrating to streaming.

“I think its a sensible move given the trends that are taking place,” said Berke of NBCSN’s closure. “You’re trying to stay ahead of the wave. You don’t want to be behind it and miss out. But this makes sense based off where pay TV is heading and base on where streaming is heading.”

Disclosure: Comcast owns NBCUniversal, which is the parent company of CNBC.

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‘Touching fish’ craze see China’s youth find ways to laze amid ‘996’ work culture | China




On the Chinese microblogging platform Weibo, enthusiastic slackers share their tips: fill up a thermos with whisky, do planks or stretches in the work pantry at regular intervals, drink litres of water to prompt lots of trips to the toilet on work time and, once there, spend time on social media or playing games on your phone.

“Not working hard is everyone’s basic right,” said one netizen. “With or without legal protection, everyone has the right to not work hard.”

Young Chinese people are pushing back against an engrained culture of overwork, and embracing a philosophy of laziness known as “touching fish”. The term is a play on a Chinese proverb: “muddy waters make it easy to catch fish”, and the idea is to take advantage of the Covid crisis drawing management’s focus away from supervising their employees.

The author of a viral post at the centre of the conversation, Weibo user Massage Bear, described “touching fish” as a life attitude.

“[It] is a life philosophy of perfunctory living, letting go of oneself and others at the same time… and that’s the key to living in the moment and being relaxed,” she said.

Some make a game of it, Quartz reported, aiming to be the employee who uses the most toilet paper, or getting up from their desk whenever any other colleague does.

The deliberate slowdown at work marks a cultural shift among younger generations who are pushing back against unhealthy work hours for little gain, and not seeing the opportunities for upward mobility experienced by their parents.

“The fundamental reason for me to do that is that I no longer believe that I can get a promotion in my current company by hard work and ability,” said one Weibo user.

“There’s a joke in the tech industry, if you work hard before 35 as engineer in a food delivery company, then after 35 you are the delivery guy,” said Suji Yan, a 25-year-old chief executive of a tech startup

“I’ve heard of people being fired after 35 because they spent less time in the company, because they have families to look after and they have less energy than the younger people.”

The “touching fish” movement has a sense of humour, but behind it is a deadly serious issue. Recent deaths have again highlighted the dangers in China’s “996” work culture – a reference to working 9am to 9pm, six days a week at a minimum, particularly in the tech industry and among food delivery drivers. The 996 attitude is widespread, despite labour laws saying work should be limited to eight hours a day, for an average of 44 hours a week.

Media reports include anecdotes of employees being offered bonuses or fold-out beds for under the desk if they work overtime, fines for missing phone calls, and even signal blockers in bathrooms to stop employees using their phones while on their toilet.

“It’s not that I don’t do my job well,” said one Weibo user.

“Touching fish to resist 996 is nothing more than a kind of nonviolent non-cooperation in a harsh working environment and a difficult process of safeguarding rights.”

In December a 23-year-old employee of e-commerce giant Pinduoduo died after working past midnight, the company confirmed earlier this month. While her death hasn’t been formally attributed to overwork, the company attracted furious backlash over the expectations put upon employees, and it was exacerbated further when earlier this month an engineer – surnamed Tan – took his own life.

Shortly afterwards Pinduoduo also fired an employee, named as Wang Taixu. Wang said he was fired after posting a photo online of an ambulance parked outside the company’s Shanghai officer building with the caption “another brave Pinduoduo warrior has fallen”. Pinduoduo reportedly disputed his characterisation of the medical incident and said Wang was fired for “extreme comments made with obvious malice”, violating company rules, and unrelated to the ambulance video. But another video which he posted after he was fired, criticising the intense work culture at the company, was viewed nearly half a million times according to Sixth Tone. Pinduoduo denied the accusations in the video.

Yan said companies got around labour laws in globally familiar ways: hiring people as contractors rather than employees, and incentivising people like delivery drivers to work long hours more often, with bonuses and games, rather than forcing them to do it.

He said as a chief executive he understood the pressures companies were under to increase output, but disagreed with the systematic culture of overwork, and saw the touching fish movement as a form of safe resistance.

“People do that because they have no way of talking to the management.”

Current leading business people are still fans of 996. Alibaba founder, Jack Ma, has said the practice is key to being successful in competitive industries. Xibei Canyin chief executive, Jia Guolong, said people should in fact be working “715” (15 hours a day, seven days a week). In 2019 a Huawei executive boasted that employees asked to work past 10pm. But it has drawn opposition from state media, including Xinhua news and the Communist party mouthpiece, the People’s Daily.

Yan said the tech industry was having a reckoning with how it was enabling the 996 culture, for example by building the technology which exploits delivery drivers. Github, a software development hosting site, has a project called 996.ICU (work 996 and you’ll end up in the intensive care unit), which documents companies enforcing excessive overtime. Yan suggested the project, co-created by his wife Katt Gu and other IT developers and to which he contributes, was in part a way for engineers to make amends.

“There are more and more engineers who are like the Github starters and want to contribute something to society, not to create algorithms to kill more delivery guys,” he said.

“There’s progress. I think my generation, when they become employers and CEOs they’ll have more humane ways of management, they’ll try to fix the system.”

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