No, a first class passenger didn't 'eat for free for a year'

By James Griffiths, January 30, 2014

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Some stories really are too good to be true. News that a first class China Eastern Airlines (CEA) passenger had found a loophole allowing him to take advantage of VIP facilities all year round went viral this week, with many, including ourselves, dubbing the man a "genius". 

The unidentified passenger changed his flight itinerary more than 300 times over the course of the year so he could continue to enjoy first class facilities at Xi'an Airport in Shaanxi province. Adding insult to injury, he cancelled his ticket and got a refund before its validity expired. 

Unfortunately, it seems that the story was apocryphal. A Weibo user who created the original post about CEA finding a strange record in their system indicating that a first class ticket from Xi'an had been changed over 300 times in a year admitted this week that he had heard the story second hand and wasn't sure of its validity. 

CEA also issued a statement saying that such a loophole doesn't exist. To enter the VIP lounge area a passenger has to exchange their booking confirmation for a boarding pass and also go through security. A passenger could not change their ticket after they had been issued a boarding pass and moved into the departure zone of the airport. (This should have been obvious to anyone, including me, who has flown ever, since even us lowly proles who can't afford them know that VIP lounges are by the departure gates.) 

With numerous other publications reporting this story, it, like "Kim Jong-un's uncle was fed to starving dogs" before it, provides an ideal example of presumed fact-checking. Kwong Wah Yit Poh, a Malaysian Chinese newspaper, published a story based on the original tweet, which was then picked up by News.com.au, whose writer probably assumed that the author of the original story had done some basic research into the tweeter's claim. News.com.au then published a story citing Kwong Wah Yit Poh, meaning that anyone who came after had two sources for the story, even though one was only repeating the dubious claims of the first. (For my part, I did find corroborating coverage in the Chinese press, mainly to check that this wasn't another "ugly baby" situation, but I still ended up repeating a fake story.) 

And now I'm reporting on myself reporting on fake news. As Luke O'Neil wrote in his great Esquire essay, 'The Year We Broke the Internet':

The fact is, that sort of double-dipping is what most of us who produce Internet content do, myself included. Give me the viral pictures, and I’ll give you the truth. And then, after an appropriate waiting period, I’ll give you the other truth, and capitalize on that traffic too. It’s almost a perfect callback to William Randolph Hearst’s infamous declaration on the eve of the Spanish-American War, “You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.” Even more fitting, historians don’t think he ever said anything like that. Then as now, it’s the myth that plays, not the reality. Today it just plays on an exponentially larger stage.

[Image via Flickr // h/t Shanghaiist]

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