The term “catfish” only became synonymous with forging a fake social networking persona – for the purposes of seduction or nefarious goals – after a US documentary of that name aired in 2010. The indie movie recorded the nine-month dalliance between Nev and Megan, conducted solely through text, social networking, email and phone calls. As the story unfolds, Megan turns out to be not what she claims: she’s more of a mumsy type called Angela, who operates over a dozen Facebook accounts.
Over in China, catfishing has invaded the country’s wanghong, or online celebrity, economy. These internet stars can earn millions of yuan a year from fans’ monetary gifts or from brand ambassador roles, as long as they have sizeable followings – whether by dint of their talents, looks or simply being odd (see WiC456).
A recent case of catfishing put the phenomenon into the media spotlight after an apparent glitch “unmasked” Qiaobiluo Dianxia (aka Your Highness Qiaobiluo), an online host on popular eSports platform DouYu. It turned out she was not the young lady that her 130,000 fans thought her to be; but rather a 58 year-old dama speaking in a sweet, endearing voice.
Previously Qiaobiluo had been able to feign her identity by using anime graphics to cover her face (see photo above), or by pointing the camera to below her shoulders, using beautifying filters or simply posting pictures of attractive girls. The tactics also allowed her to tantalise her followers as she promised to meet them in real life if she received gifts worth Rmb100,000 ($14,166). She also promised to unveil her face after she’d amassed 100,000 followers.
However, her true identity became clear when the anime image covering her face dropped off amid a livestreaming session.
While proving a shock to many of her more ardent followers, news of the con ironically also helped her popularity to spike.
Qiaobiluo soon became the most-searched vlogger on DouYu, seeing her fanbase spike to 900,000 in three days – that is until the Tencent-backed firm removed all her videos and announced she would be banned from the platform forever.
“Our investigation suggests that the incident was a scheme by Qiaobiluo to generate hype,” DouYu said in a statement, faulting the controversial video host for making improper speeches, testing the general public’s tolerance and creating a “bad social influence”. The reprimand followed Qiaobiluo’s revelation in a weibo post that her use of the disguise was actually a marketing campaign. She even congratulated herself on creating relatively costless publicity as the news of her deceit went viral.
Qiaobiluo’s trickery has drawn widespread ire, with the China Association of Performing Arts blacklisting her as an online host. The People’s Daily added that the incident reflects an increasingly competitive environment in the livestreaming industry, which pushes vloggers to adopt extraordinary methods to win eyeballs.
The hoax also calls into question the practice of “tipping”, where viewers purchase virtual gifts to reward or build rapport with the live broadcasters.
Meanwhile, Qiaobiluo is still on the scene, albeit appearing on a medium less accessible to those in China without a VPN, having migrated to the overseas platform Twitch.
She’s also giving interviews that are sowing further confusion: she told Chengdu-based Red Star News that she is actually under 30 and only looked older on the day her face was exposed because of an “allergy induced by overwork”.
Facing an avalanche of criticism over her deception, Qiaobiluo has remained staunchly unapologetic: “All such videos are meant to bring happiness to the audience. So why do people have to berate me after deriving entertainment and joy [from my shows]? Isn’t livestreaming all about performances?”
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