Two former employees of ByteDance were sentenced to prison for accepting bribes from users to promote their content on short video app Douyin. The two employees were found guilty of taking advantage of their position and accepting bribes totaling RMB 585,050 (USD 91,800) to place certain content in the “trending” section of Douyin, according to a verdict announced on November 26 by the Haidian District Court in Beijing.
The case is the latest in a series of recent corruption cases that have impacted Chinese tech giants. In August this year, a senior public relations manager of Weibo was arrested over bribery charges. In March, Tencent fired more than 100 employees for taking illegal payoffs.
The verdict came after authorities launched an investigation into Wang Yudi, Douyin’s operator of the trending topic section. According to the sentence, Wang, in July 2019, promoted a video on the trending topic section of Douyin and received RMB 9,050 (USD 1,420) as compensation.
In the next two years, Wang received additional RMB 576,000 for his illegal operations, according to the court. Wang asked his colleague Zhang Kaiying for assistance, paying her RMB 220,100 for her work, based on the verdict.
Both employees were found guilty of “accepting bribes by a non-state functionary.” Wang was given an 18-month sentence and fined RMB 20,000 (USD 3,140), while Zhang Kaiying was given a 12-month probationary sentence and fined the same amount.
In response to requests from Chinese media outlets, a representative from ByteDance said that the company found “anomalies” in Wang and Zhang’s operation records.
ByteDance led an internal investigation which resulted in the two employees admitting to using their positions to manipulate the trending topics list in exchange for money. ByteDance then handed the case to the authorities.
The representative from ByteDance explained that trending topics are generated by an AI algorithm, although operators have access to the trending lists to remove content that could violate Chinese laws. Operators are meant to weed out content rather than place specific clips in the trending section, the representative said.
In recent years, corruption has become a concern for Chinese tech companies. From 2015 to the first half of 2020, there were 360 corruption cases across 27 internet companies in China, with as many as 500 people involved, according to data compiled by Southern Metropolis Daily.