How The Media Were Conned By An Internet Promoter
(yWeekend) The Ai Qingqing incident set off an "Internet earthquake": Why did the media fail to discover the truth about the "paper clip for villa" trade? By Ma Jun (马军). February 15, 2007.
Ten days after the popular affair known as "Ai Qingqing trades a paper clip for villa" came to a close, a netizen known as "Li Er Chai Si 立二拆四" has come out to announce that he was the backstage manager of the entire incident. Of the sixteen trades, six of there were planned commercial activities; Ai Qingqing is not named Ai Qingqing but an actress named Wang Xiaoguang that he hired; the other important character Cai Hua (="the cousin of Ai Qingqing") was a worker that he hired and whom Ai had never met before this.
Li Er produced a series of evidence to show that he was the actual user for Ai Qingqing's QQ, email account and blog. "I'm the real Ai Qingqing."
"Scam!" "Shameless!" There was a uproar on the Internet. The journalists who had reported on the Ai Qingqing case all professed shock.
Ai Qingqing spent 100 days on the trading. For one hundred days, the netizens and media followed the case passionately. For one hundred days, some people doubted the veracity of the case. For one hundred days, many media in China were being led on.
More than 70 media outlets contacted Ai Qingqing for interviews, and more than 500 media outlets published/re-published those reports. But only very few media reporters raised doubts and most of the expressed surprise and shock afterwards.
Could it be that none of the media could discover the truth after 100 days of blanket coverage? Why had the reporters been exploited and became the "supporting mass players" in this show?
Many people were speculating if this girl was hyping it up. But very few people expected that portions of the details were faked. They could not have imagined that multiple commercial interests were behind Ai Qingqing. According to the principal Li Er, he has "a stranglehold on the throats of the media and the netizens." The Ai Qingqing affair triggered an "Internet earthquake" because it broached on the lives of real people.
Ai Qingqing, her "cousin" Cao Hua and Li Er were interviewed by yWeekend and gave completely different accounts; the Internet promoters are also concerned that the new industry of "Internet star creation" has been "put to death" as a result; and the reporters began their reflections about their conduct in the case.
A young Canadian man created a legend when he traded a red paper clip for a villa. On October 15 last year, a girl with ID "Ai Qingqing" posted on the Internet that she wanted to replicate that legend in China.
Through street meetings and Internet communication, she traded from a paper clip to a photograph to a jade Buddha to a necklace to a digital camera to some valuable stamps ... On January 23, 2007, after 16 trades, Ai Qingqing announced that her final trade was a contract with the Guanghzou Meimei Video/Music Recording Company.
"I hope to apologize to the masses of netizens through yWeekend."
On the evening of February 8, Li Er told the reporter that he had just gone drinking and therefore everything that he said came straight from the heart. He hoped that the masses of netizens would understand and not make personal attacks against him or Ai Qingqing. "The blanket media coverage all said that this is a shocking scam. This has given me a great deal of mental pressure."
A few days ago, Li Er attended a television program titled <Point Strike> and disclosed for the first time that he was the backstage manager of the "Ai Qingqing paper-clip-for-villa" affair.
The person known as Li Er Chai Si 立二拆四(abbreviated as Li Er 立二) graduated from Dongbei University with a major in non-ferrous metallurgy. During the process when Tianxian MM was promoted to popularity more than a year ago, he resigned from his former job and became the assistant to veteran Internet promoter Lao Lang. He was mainly involved with media liaison. This meant that he became versed in Internet hyping and as well all types of traditional media. Last September, he left Lao Lang's Internet planning team and went his own way. In the autumn of 2006, there came the highly controversial "paper-clip-for-villa" affair.
Once Ai Qingqing appeared on the Internet with a paper clip in hand, the media chased after her. On the day when the first post appeared, a newspaper sent in an email to request an interview. "From there on, there were reporters every day."
During the 100 days of the campaign, he used Ai Qingqing's QQ to chat with reporters from all over China: he used Ai Qingqing's personal email to exchange information about media interviews as well as to trade items; some of the broadly published descriptions by Ai Qingqing about what happened at a trade were ghost-written by him.
Even more astonishing was that Li Er said that out of Ai Qingqing's sixteen trades, six of them were faked exchanges or commercial deals.
These included: a jade Buddha for a mobile telephone. The mobile telephone belonged to Li Er himself. On Li Er's desk, the reporter saw an empty box for the mobile telephone.
Wuliangye wine traded for a Chinese plucked string instrument. An American film poster traded for the Tripitaka Koreana. Presently, the Wuliangye wine and the American film poster are in the possession of Li Er.
Ai Qingqing and two bottles of Wuliangye wine
The two bottles of wine on Li Er's desk
The Tripitaka Koreana was traded for the publishing rights to the <Ai Qingqing Photo Album>, which was swapped for a 128,000 RMB green jade bracelet, which was swapped for a contract with the Guangzhou Meimei Video/Music Publishing Company. These final three trades were commercial deals that Li Er and friends made with certain companies.
The other ten trades were genuine. The trade of the Chinese plucked string instrument CD for the mirror of actress Irene Wan was made possible through the contact of a friend of Li Er, but it was nevertheless a genuine trade. Li Er said that they had planned to swap with either Irene Wan or Han Qiaosheng, and they ended up trading for Irene Wan's mirror.
So why does he want to come out now and reveal these "truths"? Li Er told the various media that he had a verbal agreement with Wang Xiaoguang that the plan will be made known. "Wang Xiaoguang knew that it would be disclosed, but she reneged later on after she became famous."
"This affair was carried out by me and my sister and it had nothing to do with Li Er. He is just an Internet friend." The reporter reached Wang Xiaoguang by telephone on February 11 and she was incensed.
"I wrote on my blog that my QQ and email accounts have been stolen." Wang Xiaoguang said that she has signed with Guangzhou Meimei Video/Music Company, which says that Li Er is really shameless. "The company will make an overall statement soon, so we don't want to say too much right now."
She also said: "After this matter calms down, I will also make a summary. I will bring out some powerful evidence to prove this matter. But I cannot reveal the evidence at this time, because I don't know what Li Er might do."
Ai Qingqing's manager Xiaoliang told the yWeekend reporter by telephone that he does not know Li Er but the company manager Xu said that this man is an imposter who is out to hype himself. "We were very angry at first and we wanted to sue him. But then we thought that it does not matter because it does not affect us. We will ignore him and he can hype himself up if he chooses to."
In the bedroom/office of Li Er, he showed the reporters the evidence that proved that he was the backstage manager of "Ai Qingqing."
The Wuliangye wine and American movie poster which were traded away by Ai Qingqing are in the possession of Li Er. He said that both trades were commercial transactions planned by his friends. He went through various connections and made contact with companies such as jewelry companies and he used the barter trade to publicize the products of the companies.
Wang Xiaoguang rejected this claim and said that Li Er is just a netizen who managed to lay his hands on those two items through some special effort.
Li Er then opened his notebook computer in front of the reporter and went into Ai Qingqing's QQ and email accounts. Then he pulled up the chat sessions with reporters and netizens using the name "Ai Qingqing." He asked: "I established the Ai Qingqing QQ account and group. If I stole her QQ number, then how can I also steal the chat records on her computer as well?"
Li Er said: "These complete chat sessions are stored in my computer. This showed that the QQ belonged to me and I am Ai Qingqing."
In the front of the reporter, Li Er then opened Ai Qingqing's email box and showed various email from netizens to Ai Qingqing. Then he asked the reporter: "After you read this information, do you still not believe that I manipulated the whole thing?"
But some netizens wondered if Li Er might have stolen or broken into Wang Xiaoguang's computer and obtained all the information, including the QQ chat records.
Wang Xiaoguang said that Li Er's computer is her computer. Li Er was contemptuous of that assertion and said that the photographs on Ai Qingqing's blog showed that she had a desktop computer whereas he has a notebook computer.
According to Li Er, his friends helped to make connections with others but he was the person who operated in the background. "I wrote almost all of the Ai Qingqing blog posts. Sometimes, I could not return in time and so I called Cai Hua (who played the role of the cousin of Ai Qingqing) and asked her to write instead. I instructed her to just describe the transaction without expressing any feelings, and then the netizens may not detect any discrepancies and slips."
Wang Xiaoguang had held chat sessions with netizens. Li Er said that all she did was to sit in front of the camera and strike a pose while Li Er was typing on the side. While Wang Xiaoguang struck the pose, she kept asking, "Is it done yet?"
"A man can hide and do something this big. With reports from several hundred media outlets and 300,000 web pages of re-publications, how can there not be pressure for me personally?" Even as Li Er complained, he seemed quite satisfied.
After repeated requests, the other important character in the "paper-clip-for-villa" affair Cao Hua (that is, the "cousin" of Ai Qingqing) surfaced on February 9 to be interviewed by the reporter. She confirmed that Li Er was telling the truth.
During the one hundred trading days, the media went through Cao Hua to contact Ai Qingqing. Before the trade was terminated on January 23, Cao Hua had turned off her mobile telephone.
"What is in the past is over, and I don't want to participate in this affair anymore." Cao Hua said that she was not the cousin of Ai Qingqing. At the time, she was only helping Li Er out. But her entire life has been affected. "I'm not suitable for this type of thing."
Li Er said that Cao Hua was the girlfriend of a university classmate. She withdrew from the matter because "the pressure was too big -- she wanted to lead a normal life."
When the reporter spoke to Wang Xiaoguang and asked her, she seemed surprised: "How is that possible? Cao Hua is my sister. It is impossible for her to provide proof on behalf of Li Er. Let me call her first."
For the next three days, the reporter kept calling Wang Xiaoguang back, but she never picked up.
Many people do not understand just what happened between Ai Qingqing and Li Er after the trade was finished after 100 days.
According to Li Er: On January 28, Wang Xiaoguang and her manager Xiaoliang came to see Li Er and told him that the cooperation is over and each party should go on their own way. Then they asked Li Er for Ai Qingqing's QQ and blog account passwords.
Li Er immediately refused. "We have a conflict between us. If she takes back the QQ and blog account, I won't have much evidence left to establish my relationship to his matter."
Li Er and Wang Xiaoguang were still fighting for the rights to Sina.com blog a few days ago. But since the image presented was that of Wang Xiaoguang and Xiaoliang used Wang Xiaoguang's identity card as proof, they were able to get Sina.com to give the blog to them.
Li Er said: "But I can also understand her. Ai Qingqing is much better known than Wang Xiaoguang. If the appearance fee of Ai Qingqing is 100,000 RMB, then how much can Wang Xiaoguang get? 1,000 RMB?"
Li Er said that there was nothing that he could do about Wang Xiaoguang's reversal of course, because the parties had never signed a contract.
"It was a failure not to have signed a contract. This is a lesson for me. When I promote another Internet celebrity next time, I will make sure to sign a contract first."
Pointing to the QQ image on the computer screen, Li Er said: "This person is the chief editor of a Changchun cultural newspaper and he still thinks that I am Ai Qingqing. He helped me about how to analyze packaging myself and hyping myself up."
Li Er said that over those 100 days, there were some media who questioned whether someone was stage-managing Ai Qingqing. "At Modern City on October 22, your newspaper's Chen Qimei (who had reported on Ai Qingqing) went straight at Wang Xiaoguang: 'Are you hyping this up? Do you know Lao Lang?' It was enough to make Wang Xiaoguang cry."
Zhang Shougang of Beijing Entertainment News voiced similar ideas. The doubts were always in existence, but nobody could uncover the truth. Since the doubts were directed at Lao Lang (a famous Internet promoter who popularized Tianxian MM and other Internet celebrities), Li Er was shielded to a large extent.
Why did most people suspect Lao Lang? Li Er said that he had worked with Lao Lang before and he helped in promoting Tianxian MM too. Therefore, there were some similarities on detailed characteristics such as the style of the photographs, the writing in the posts, etc. "When the people made Lao Lang the target of their suspicion, they did not pay attention to me."
Li Er said that his initial planning was not quite perfect and many of the arrangements were actually improvised at the spur of the moment. "I wanted to try something on the Internet and see if the media will be interested. I did not imagine that it would get so much attention. The traditional media rushed in immediately, which disrupted our original plan."
Li Er said that he was uncertain about whether he should tell the truth to the media at the time, or wait until the 100 days were over. "Frankly speaking, there was some intent to deceive or conceal and we continued to act out this Internet drama."
But in the later interviews, Li Er told the reporter: "Actually, this matter can be either revealed or not. If we signed a contract, then I would not go public. But since our relationship is over right now, her commercial value means nothing to me anymore." This is perhaps one of the reasons why Li Er has disclosed this matter publicly.
The more important reason was this: Li Er wanted to establish a name for himself.
A friend once told Li Er: "Why would you do this if not for fame or money?" Li Er does not believe that he got nothing out of this affair. At the very least, he got famous as a result. "I have invested so much in this affair. Through my intelligence, we created such a big stir. A traditional company could not achieve this kind of effect even by spending 1 million RMB."
Li Er said that he is in the process of registering his own Internet marketing company.
Concerning Li Er's material, most netizens believe him. But there are people who are still suspicious. The well-known Internet promoters all suspect that there is more to the story.
Lao Lang (Internet promoter; Li Er used to be his assistant):
In this matter, whatever you can see or hear is basically untrue. Often, there is more behind each piece of information.
I feel that Ai Qingqing did most of this. Li Er claimed that he did the planning, but he may just be participating somewhere. The evidence provided by Li Er is not completely credibile. There are many netizens around Wang Xiaoguang and one cannot preclude this possibility: Li Er joined Ai Qingqing's organization and helped with some of the work. Then he took some photographs and used them as evidence to show that he planned the affair.
Wang Xiaoguang is a 20-something-year-old little girl while Li Er is an old guy in his 30's. Who has more social experience? Who is more crafty and ruthless? It goes without say.
I feel that Wang Xiaoguang is the genuine victim in his case. She became the victim of Li Er and even some websites. Anyone with half a brain knows that it is enough to have promoted the affair to this stage. Why did they have to reveal the so-called inside story? I'm especially perplexed about this.
Yima Qingchen (一马青尘) (Sina.com forum webmaster; participated in many Internet star promotion events)
Li Er has come out with a donkey in tow. But I can only see the rope and I have not seen what the donkey looks like. I feel that there is something else behind this.
Based upon the sole claims from Li Er, we cannot prove anything. His evidence only proves that he was the backstage manager of Ai Qingqing. But did he really break up with Ai Qingqing? That is hard to say.
When he came out to expose the backstage planning of "paper-clip-for-villa", this could be just another step in the affair. There may be even more exposÚs in the future, and it can be said that there is no end to the chicanery.
From Furong Jiejie to Tianxian MM, Extraordinary Real People, Hooligan Swallow, February Girl, Chinese Literature Spice Girl, etc. Behind these Internet celebrities, there were certain Internet promoters operating behind the scene.
The promoters go through planning and packaging and then present certain grassroots characters on websites or forums. They hype these people up, by hiring people to follow up twenty-four hours a day, or hire writers to comment, or work with websites to create special features, and so on. In the words of Internet promoter Chen M0 (陈墨), "two out of ten posts came from us."
Why do the promoters work so hard? Li Er gave it away with one sentence: "When an Internet personality becomes sufficiently popular, the fame can be traded for commercial interests."
The Internet stars have been commercialized a long time ago. Internet stars such as Tianxian MM and Extraordinary Real People are hired by advertisers to become image spokespersons, attend product announcements, etc. Li Er said that when he helped Lao Lang to promote Tianxian MM and Extraordinary Real People, he managed to pull in 1.5 million RMB in sponsorship.
Business and entertainment are not in conflict with each other. Sina.com forum webmaster Yima Qingchen said that these incidents are good stories with plenty of drama, and they are worthy of the attention of netizens. But with the "Ai Qingqing paper-clip-for-villa" affair, the interactivity of the Internet had entered into real life. The hidden (or deceptive) acts hurt the feelings of netizens.
On the computer screen on Li Er's notebook computer, a netizen was writing in a QQ group to curse Ai Qingqing: "Don't let me see you on the street. I will tell you, "You XX and you daughter of a XX."" Condemnations are appearing all over the blogs and forums. Netizens even call for the police to investigate the matter and charge the principals in the case with fraud.
Even more netizens ask: "Who can we trust on any Internet matter from now on?"
During the interview, Li Er repeated many times that he is not a swindler, because this was just an Internet play. "If this were a swindle, I would not have come out to reveal the truth."
Lifeweek reporter Meng Jing wrote in her blog: "Before Li Er disclosed it, I thought that while hype is hype, at least the trades were genuine. I did not imagine that this would be a swindle."
Zheng Yuanjie was on the same program as Ai Qingqing on Phoenix TV. He said that if he knew what was happening, he would not have gotten the thought of buying a villa to trade for a child's drawing." He thought that this affair makes people feel uneasy because certain basic principles were violated. But the good thing was that it allowed people to gain some knowledge.
Whether this was an Internet stage play or a true story, is there any moral bottom line for this type of Internet star creation? What will happen to the fate of Ai Qingqing? Can we still believe in any of the new Internet stars?
How did Li Er succeed to stay in the background and control every operation without being exposed? Alternately, how come the reporters were unable to discover the truth and actually end up helping the process (or actually "used" as one famous reporter said afterwards)?
Meng Ke is the reporter for the Hunan Economic Television Channel program <City One Time>. For more than 40 days, he followed Ai Qingqing to film the trades. He was the media reporter who had the most contact with Ai Qingqing. He narrated to the yWeekend reporter about how he was "tricked."
Meng Ke said that he believes in the inside stories that Li Er has told.
After the "truth" came out, Meng Ke gave Li Er a call. The first sentence on the other side is "Are you Meng Ke?" This made Meng Ke very curious. "How do you know?" Li Er replied: "You filmed Ai Qingqing every day. Of course, I know you." "Every time that we had a trade, he was hiding in a corner watching. I thought that was frightening." Meng Ke was still bothered when he thought about it again.
On November 15, 2006, it was one month after Ai Qingqing began trading. During this period, she was receiving more and more attention from the media. Meng Ke arrived in Beijing that day and began to interview Ai Qingqing.
"I was in Beijing for more than 40 days. I was with Ai Qingqing almost every day." During this period, Meng Ke witnessed Ai Qingqing used the Wuliangye wine to trade for the Chinese plucked string instrument, to trade for the CD, to trade for the poster, etc. He recorded what he saw on videocamera. But after more than 40 days of work, Meng Ke never noticed the person known as Li Er.
But Meng Ke believed in the "inside stories" coming from Li Er: "Perhaps Li Er included certain untruthful elements, but I experienced most of it. When I compared against the details provided by Li Er, I realized that I had really been deceived."
One day, Meng Ke wanted to do a program about "Ai Qingqing's mental journey." He was hoping that Ai Qingqing could tell about how she felt, accompanied with some music and visual images. "But she thought for a long while, but could not come up with anything; I asked her to write it down, but she couldn't write anything. She said that she did not feel anything. Then she went home that night and the essay appeared on her blog. Li Er must have written it."
"She also repeated the same things every day. For example: I want to realize this dream in real life, I thank everybody for supporting me -- these were very formulaic phrases. But her blog gave a completely different feel."
When Li Er exposed the matter, he said, "A certain traditional media outlet had followed her for more than forty days continuously to film, but they discovered no problems." This traditional media outlet must be referring to Meng Ke and his team.
"It is not that we did not discover any problems, but we really looked at this matter with a good heart. We did not want to turn this into a paparazzi report," explained Meng Ke.
Privately, Meng Ke asked Ai Qingqing more than once: "I promise not to report it but you tell me the truth -- is this all for real?" Ai Qingqing had answered this question more than a hundred times: "It is for real."
Meng Ke said that he was skeptical at first, but only insofar as to whether Ai Qingqing was hyping the affair. "At first, I thought that the girl only wanted to be famous and there was no other purpose." After the one hundred days were over, Ai Qingqing received a three-year recording contract. At the time, Meng Ke thought that she must have been hyping herself.
Therefore, Meng Ke did not investigate any deeper. He keep his focus on the original "youthful will" theme about how a young person worked hard to realize her dream.
The various trades appeared to be authentic to Meng Ke. But when it came to the mirror of Irene Wan, Meng Ke had a bit of doubt.
"At the time, I had agreed to meet for the trade. When I called her, she did not pick up. The husband of her so-called cousin picked up and said that she went out with a friend from the outside. I saw her by chance in Wangfujing that day with a young man, who might be her boyfriend. That evening, she suddenly called me to say that she had made the trade already and I could go and take the film the next day." (According to Li Er, he had arranged through someone to trade for Irene Wan's mirror a few days ago.)
Meng Ke found some other doubts, but he never imagined that it would be so complicated. "Reporters have communicated with each other but nobody pursued any further. We still wanted to protect her. We only wanted to record the trading process. But I never expect that this is how it would turn out. I'm really circumspect now. In the future, I will be more objective in my reporting. I need to protect myself even as I try to protect other people."
Ai Qingqing had invited Meng Ke to dine at her cousin's place. This touched Meng Ke. As outsiders in Beijing, he felt that Ai Qingqing was a good friend.
After each trade, Meng Ke ate and chatted with Ai Qingqing and her "cousin." He did not imagine that the "cousin" was also fake (Li Er claimed that the cousin was a worker of theirs and did not know Ai Qingqing before this). "I went to her cousin's place one time and we ate and played cards. Did you know what they were saying? Ai Qingqing told Cao Hua: 'Sis, do you remember what happened when we were little?' Cao said, 'I remember. This is what happened that year.' The two of them can play-act really well!" Meng Ke said that he could not imagine this was staged, because the scene was just too realistic.
After Li Er exposed the affair, Meng Ke called Ai Qingqing. "I wasn't going to scold her, but I needed to ask her some questions at least." By that time, Ai Qingqing had turned off her telephone.
At first, Meng Ke had read comments on the Internet that real estate developers were manipulating this affair from the backstage. But he never thought that this could be the case. "If in the end, her initial plan and her so-called dreams had been arranged and planned by someone else and she was just an actress directed by other people, then this really saddens and disgusts me."
The notion of "actress" came from Li Er. He had told the media many times that the "Ai Qingqing paper-clip-for-villa incident" was just an Internet theatrical drama and Wang Xiaoguang was just an actress. Meng Ke smiled bitterly at the reporter and said that he was just an unpaid supporting mass actor in this drama.
Meng Ke said that he felt very defensive every day. When his colleagues see him, they ask: "Didn't you go to Beijing? Were you fooled?" "I went there with good intentions to do a report, but I did not expect such an outcome. Actually, she not only conned me but she also conned many reporters and the masses."
Meng Ke wrote in his own blog: "Nobody can understand how I feel. I want to laugh, I want to cry and I want to hit someone."
Actually, Meng Ke's Hunan Economic Television Channel was not the only one to come to Beijing to cover this affair. Many other provincial media also came, along with media from Hong Kong and Taiwan.
Li Er provided a list of numbers to the reporters to show how successful his project had been -- more than 70 media outlets came form all over China to do interviews; the stories were re-published in more than 500 media outlets. At Sina.com, there were more than 5 million hits; Tianya had more than 850,000 hits. Among all the media reports, the number that offered doubts can be counted with the fingers of the hand. After Li Er's report, many reporters expressed surprise and astonishment.
Meng Ke summarizes: "After Li Er, there will be others coming out to make exposÚs. But it does not matter what they have to say, because the fairy tale of Ai Qingqing has been destroyed. Basically, Li Er has take it down. From now on, when we encounter a similar report, I need to carefully think about whether it is real or fake. Do we uncover the truth, or just report the process?"
Related Links: Trading Places EastSouthWestNorth November 19, 2006