Irene Audzei began posting videos of her alpaca on Douyin (the Chinese version of TikTok) in November last year. She and her husband adopted 蹦蹦, or BengBeng, at a large farm in Shanxi province, and he’s since made himself at home in their apartment in Huizhou in southern Guangdong province. “We speak Chinese to him, and he speaks his alpaca language,” Audzei said of the curiously shy alpaca.
Audzei, who moved to China from her native Belarus five years ago, said that “little BengBeng,” wasn’t very popular on Douyin at first. Her videos of the alpaca initially only got around 50 to 100 views.
But then, in February, she posted a video of BengBeng frolicking around outside in search of “mom,” aka Audzei. The video quickly went viral, clocking up over 32 million views and 750,000 likes. Suddenly, BengBeng was a minor internet star with 90,000 followers to date. “I don’t know how it actually happened,” Audzei told Rest of World. “I still don’t get the system, really.”
For a few months, the platform allowed Audzei to host livestreams with BengBeng, in addition to posting normal videos. But over time, she and other alpaca owners in China began to notice something strange: They say the app is erroneously classifying their pets as “protected animals,” and cutting off their ability to livestream.
Audzei and about 90 other alpaca owners have gathered in a WeChat group to discuss the issue, as well as other headaches associated with being animal content creators in China. Like other parts of the world, the country is home to a massive economy for cute animal influencers, who attract millions of fans on social media. Some alpaca creators say they plan to start using other video platforms instead of Douyin, like Xiaohongshu or Kuaishou, which they believe are more lenient when it comes to livestreaming.
Chen Chen, the 27-year-old leader of the WeChat group, said she hasn’t personally tried livestreaming with her two alpacas yet, but noted that the ban has been a topic of discussion among members. “Douyin has some restrictions when it comes to this aspect,” she explained. “They say alpacas are wild animals — actually, they’re not at all.”
It’s not clear whether Douyin is targeting alpacas specifically, or if other pet communities have also been barred from livestreaming on the platform recently. A spokesperson for Douyin declined to comment on the record. “We wrote to tech support, but they said it’s a bug,” said Audzei.
Douyin’s crackdown on alpaca livestreamers may be an unintended consequence of its efforts to rid the app of illegal wildlife trading, which has long been an issue online. Other platforms, including Facebook and Etsy, have struggled to keep merchants selling everything from ivory to orangutans off their sites.
In March, Douyin joined the Coalition to End Wildlife Trafficking Online, a partnership between conservation nonprofits and a number of the world’s biggest tech platforms. In order to join, companies must commit to taking a series of steps to combat online wildlife trading. In a press release, the coalition said Douyin “has optimized their reporting mechanism related to wildlife, and set up a special working group for animal and plant protection.”
In recent weeks, Douyin has encouraged users to report criminal content related to protected wildlife. Users who type in the keyword “alpaca” into Douyin will see a colorful campaign featuring the phrase, “Protect wildlife; guard diverse beauty.” The campaign goes on to explain how users may report harmful content.
The exotic animal business has recently come under greater scrutiny in China. Last year, after authorities identified a market in Wuhan as the likely source of the coronavirus outbreak, the government announced a permanent ban on wildlife trade and consumption. In July, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs released a narrow list of domestic animals that can be bred legally, including alpacas.
Douyin, like other social media platforms in China, is required by the government to censor content about a range of different topics deemed to be sensitive or inappropriate. The rules around livestreaming — an unpredictable medium that can only be moderated in real time — are particularly strict. Foreigners are required to get permission from the government before using the feature, and Douyin has stopped people from livestreaming for wearing revealing clothing, swearing, or even speaking Cantonese, according to multiple accounts.
Initially, Audzei said, she thought that Douyin had banned BengBeng’s livestreams because the app recognized she was a foreigner. “If I’m accidentally on camera for one or two minutes, then it usually gets blocked right away,” she explained. Instead, she received a message stating that her livestream violated Douyin’s wildlife policy, which is designed to protect wild animals from harm. In other instances, she received no clear message as to why her livestream was prohibited.
Some alpaca content creators in China say they have successfully appealed Douyin’s decision to ban them from livestreaming, and can now use the feature again. But others say the platform is still an unpredictable place when it comes to connecting with fans via livestream.
Missing out on live broadcasts can have a real financial impact on an alpaca influencer. Prior to the ban, one of the more popular alpaca content creators on Douyin said in the WeChat group that they earned around $3,117 (20,000 yuan) in just one month via gifts from fans during their livestreams. On Douyin, fans can send digital gifts during live broadcasts that range from a basic .01 yuan heart to a sticker that goes for about $467 (3000 yuan).
Audzei, who’s made around $155 (1000 yuan) since the beginning of BengBeng’s journey through livestreaming gifts, doesn’t depend on the app to earn a living, but she empathizes with those who do. “I think it’s a pity, and now people are discussing that now they can’t really make money from broadcasting,” she said.
Chen, who lives in the city of Hangzhou in Zhejiang province, started consistently posting alpaca videos on Douyin in December. The videos of her pets, 大乔, or DaQiao, and 貂蝉, or DiaoChan, are often coupled with popular, sing-song music. With DaQiao’s cheesy, 1,000-watt smile, it’s easy to see why 700,000 fans adore the duo. Overall, Chen said she’s not terribly bothered by the app’s confusing livestreaming rules. “If you post regular videos, then there’s no issue. It’s just when you’re livestreaming, you’re quite limited,” she said. Chen advises anyone who wants to try livestreaming on Douyin to be “a bit cautious.”
Wei Xu, another alpaca content creator on Douyin, said he’s not currently focused on livestreaming with his alpaca 毛豆, or MaoDou, because of the “troublesome” situation. “They’re not like other cats and dogs that can appear on camera,” he said. “Right now, [alpacas] can’t appear on live broadcasts, so, from our standpoint, there’s not much significance [to livestreaming].” Xu, who lives in Guangdong, said the first Douyin account he made for MaoDou was suspended because too many people were asking him about the price of his alpacas (which aren’t for sale), but his new one now has over 100,000 followers.
Jane Manchun Wong, a technology blogger and software engineer based in Hong Kong, said a glitch in Douyin’s automated content moderation system may be causing the app to accidentally prohibit alpacas from livestreaming. “It might be a technical issue related to enforcement of such [wildlife] policy,” she said in a phone interview.
Since alpaca content creators aren’t experiencing problems with videos in the main feeds, Wong suspects Douyin may have a different system for flagging livestreams. “The assumption I’m making is that the takedowns are automatic,” she said. “In order to scale the content moderation, they might have to automate some of them.”
For now, animal content creators on the app will continue sharing their happy-go-lucky alpaca videos for as long as they can. Audzei said she hopes that Douyin will work to resolve this issue and give foreigners more opportunities to share content. But more than anything, she hopes her alpaca can live a good life. “I just hope that he will be healthy, he will live at least 20 years, and I hope that he is happy with us,” she said.