In a tweet which became a Facebook post, @zenalbatross reported that Wuhan’s clever schoolchildren “defeated the app assigning them homework” by spamming it with one-star reviews to trigger its deletion from an app store:
That tweet was itself a retweet of a screenshot from a March 5 2020 item in the London Review of Books, “The Word from Wuhan.” Portions of the paragraph in question were cut off; in its entirety it read:
Schools are suspended until further notice. With many workplaces also shut, notoriously absent Chinese fathers have been forced to stay home and entertain their children. Video clips of life under quarantine are trending on TikTok. Children were presumably glad to be off school – until, that is, an app called DingTalk was introduced. Students are meant to sign in and join their class for online lessons; teachers use the app to set homework. Somehow the little brats worked out that if enough users gave the app a one-star review it would get booted off the App Store. Tens of thousands of reviews flooded in, and DingTalk’s rating plummeted overnight from 4.9 to 1.4. The app has had to beg for mercy on social media: ‘I’m only five years old myself, please don’t kill me.’
The same claim appeared in the UK’s Daily Mirror, on Interesting Engineering, via Mashable, and on Boy Genius Report (BGR). All iterations cited the London Review of Books as their source for the anecdote.
The London Review of Books mentioned the app — DingTalk — by name, and DingTalk was referenced in previous reporting. On February 27 2020, the Economist described DingTalk’s role in education in China during the coronavirus quarantine:
“Don’t delete your browser history,” Lin Kai warns his 11-year-old son, who is supposed to be live-streaming lectures delivered by his schoolteachers. Mr Lin has reason to be anxious. To curb the spread of covid-19, the authorities have closed schools and universities indefinitely. But “study must not stop”, says the education ministry. Under its orders, the country’s biggest exercise in remote learning is under way, watched over by parents. Mr Lin, who lives in the eastern city of Hangzhou, has caught his son being distracted by online games. He wants his son to know that he will inspect the browser for evidence of such naughtiness.
There are other ways to enforce discipline. Liu Weihua, who teaches at Wuhan University of Technology, cold-calls his students during live streams. With sit-down exams now impossible, his grading system places more emphasis on how students perform in classroom discussions, Mr Liu explains. These are conducted using video-conferencing platforms such as Dingtalk by Alibaba, a tech giant, and Ketang by Tencent, a competitor.
The Economist noted that not all homes in China had internet access sufficient for education via DingTalk, which is described as similar to the workplace chat app Slack. The article mentioned other means used to ensure that quarantined students remained caught up via a 14-hour programming block beginning with primary school and ending with classes for older students:
In poor rural areas, where some households lack internet access, instruction by television fills the void. Since February 17th  China Education Network, a state-run service, has been broadcasting classes every weekday from 8am to 10pm. The first lesson of the day is aimed at pupils in the first year of primary school. Programmes for older children air in the afternoon and evening. All core subjects, such as mathematics and Chinese, are covered.
One student in China consulted for the piece said “that some of [the students] study just as hard at home as in school, and [perhaps] take perverse pleasure in the fact that others must be slacking off.” That student seemed to feel that quarantining students due to coronavirus provided a competitive edge. And a teacher in Beijing mused that the reliance on distance learning tools might make for a sea change in post-quarantine education due to the creation of new information channels between students and teachers.
Back in October 2019 — before COVID-19 was even identified — Quartz profiled the “Orwellian” DingTalk app as a Chinese version of Slack, mentioning a geotagging surveillance feature proving to be a frustration for workers. DingTalk’s name also appeared in a January 28 2020 South China Morning Post article, as a tool used in conjunction with Youku (described as similar to YouTube) for communication:
Schools in China are postponing spring semester classes due to the recent outbreak of the Wuhan coronavirus, so online education providers are getting a chance to show what they have to offer.
Alibaba’s Youku, China’s answer to YouTube, announced on Monday that it will launch online classes for primary and secondary school students. The classes will be free with the help of another Alibaba product called DingTalk, an office communication tool similar to Slack. State media has reported that nearly 50 primary and secondary schools in Hubei province, of which Wuhan is the capital, have joined the program.
(Abacus is a unit of the South China Morning Post, which is owned by Alibaba.)
The London Review of Books mention of DingTalk indicated students were “meant to sign in and join their class for online lessons; teachers use the app to set homework,” and the viral tweet described the app as “assigning” them homework. In more nuanced accounts, students with access to stable internet were provided classes via video and they used DingTalk for discussion of lessons and sometimes to receive assignments.
However, that article on March 5 2020 was not the first iteration of claims that Chinese students were giving DingTalk low ratings. A February 17 2020 report from Reuters Shanghai noted that DingTalk “begged” China’s school students to stop giving it poor ratings:
On [February 17 2020], DingTalk had a score of 2.5 out of 5 stars, despite being No.1 in the business category.
“I know, young heroes, you were not expecting such a fulfilling holiday, it’s difficult for you,” it said in a music video with cartoons posted on its verified Weibo late on Sunday
“Young heroes please spare my life, you all are my papas,” it said.
Alibaba did not immediately respond to Reuters’ requests for further comment. Many of the roughly 800,000 reviews on the app on the Apple store platform criticised DingTalk for spoiling their plans for a rest.
“My holidays! I love DingTalk, say no more, there is one star for you,” said one review.
In that reporting, Reuters described “homework grading” (not assigning) as a “new” DingTalk feature. However, it was clear the app was not just used for assigning homework or even for schoolchildren, and those features were developed to cater to educators during a lengthy quarantine:
Authorities shut schools until at least the end of February  to try to stop the spread of [coronavirus,] and many school students were hoping for an extended holiday … So [students] were less than grateful when DingTalk, originally designed for China’s white collar workers, adapted to the virus outbreak by offering the service to help educate primary and middle school teenagers.
Its app, with new features such as homework grading, the ability to livestream classes and watch video replays, has received a flood of one-star reviews from disgruntled pupils.
On March 2 2020, China-focused tech site TechNode reported that DingTalk was locked in a “meme war” due to student objections over its adoption as an education tool during the coronavirus quarantine. The October 2019 Quartz profile of DingTalk (or Ding Ding) characterized the app as invasive for workers; TechNode said that “DingTalk has gained a bad reputation for enabling companies to micro-manage, monitor, and exploit its employees.”
And while quarantined children were blamed for DingTalk’s poor ratings on English-language social media, TechNode reported that it wasn’t just their bad reviews:
Prior to launching online learning tools, DingTalk’s app rating was already unenviable. The app’s rating dropped to close to one star across popular app stores in China and the negative reviews piled up … According to data from mobile data and analytics company App Annie, Dingtalk received over 15,000 one-star reviews on Feb. 11 , and just a little over 2,000 five-star ratings.
According to TechNode, there may have been student coordination to rate the app negatively (although it wasn’t China’s most popular app to begin with) and DingTalk’s CEO admitted that he would probably have done the same thing as a child. Moreover, much of the student backlash and DingTalk’s response occurred in February 2020 — by the end of that month, DingTalk went back up to a 2.6 star rating:
Propelled by a rumor that apps rated below one star would get removed, Chinese students organizing a campaign to lower DingTalk’s rating.
In an attempt to appease their anger, Dingtalk uploaded an apology video on Chinese streaming site Bilibili. The video featured memes and cartoons singing a catchy tune with lyrics begging for better reviews like “I know guys, you were not expecting such a productive holiday” and “Please don’t give me any more one-star ratings. I was chosen for this job and there is not much I can do about it.” The video has been viewed nearly 17 million times.
In response to DingTalk’s pleas, a widely circulated joke, students wrote in the review section they were willing to give DingTalk five stars, but in five “installments.”
On Feb. 17, App Annie’s data shows that five-star reviews started to flood in too, balancing the one stars. Some appeared to be written by older users lashing out at the youth: “Students don’t like online classes will turn into adults who don’t want to work. But the reality is they will need to earn money for their family. Students need to study for their future’s sake,” wrote user ddtfyuvf in a review on the iOS app store … The [DingTalk response] videos seem to have won support from some users. As of Feb. 27 , DingTalk had rebounded to 2.6 stars.
Going back to the viral tweet:
good morning to all the kids under quarantine in wuhan who defeated the app assigning them homework by spamming it with 1-star reviews until it got removed from the app store
DingTalk — the app mentioned in the London Review of Books screenshot — was more than an app assigning students homework; it was better described as a workplace app similar to Slack. DingTalk bolstered tools for education in light of looming extended quarantines, but the app was already controversial thanks to its worker-monitoring functionalities, such as geotagging. TechNode reported that DingTalk’s ratings dropped due to a rumor that an under one-star rating would cause the app to be deleted from the app store, but DingTalk was never deleted or removed as the tweet suggested. By the time the tweet circulated, DingTalk had curried favor via funny videos on Chinese social media sites like Weibo, and as of February 27 2020, it maintained a 2.6 star rating.