In an article written for Foreign Affairs, Citizen Lab Senior Research Fellow Jason Q. Ng discusses the censorship of “rumours” on the popular Chinese WeChat mobile application.

Chinese authorities deleted a series of posts from the application, ranging from statements that NASA confirmed that the earth will enter darkness for six days on December 16, to claims that ousting former Communist Party Head Zhou Yongkang will lead to less corruption. The term “rumours,” Ng says, is a “modern-day dirty word that officials in Beijing use as a catch-all term to describe speculation, unverified commentary, and false information posted online.” However, he adds that this term also encompasses “unsanctioned opinions about contemporary events.”

In fact, the country has enacted laws often referred to as the “WeChat Articles,” which attempt to stop non-government approved users posting political content and commentary online.

Jason Q. Ng explains that the crackdown on rumours is part of a wider attempt to undermine unofficial news and commentary, in turn ensuring that mass communication remains strictly within the realm of state authority. Ng connects this with the ideological roots of China’s Community Party, as well as the country’s Confucianist and Taoist roots. These traditions inform the desire to have a shared set of beliefs amongst citizens and officials.

However, there is a also a concern that rumours, once retold enough, can serve as a tool for citizens to organize. Often, the creation and sharing of unverified content is an attempt by Internet users to “both to express their minds and to create a collective counterweight against unreliable official statements,” Ng says. He adds that “rumors are a particularly potent form of protest when official stories lack credibility.”

Read the full article, or an informal Q&A with Emily Parker and Jason Q. Ng on Parlio.