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China is trolling rare-earth miners online and the Pentagon isn't happy

Beijing-linked Dragonbridge flames biz building Texas plant for Uncle Sam

The US Department of Defense said it's investigating Chinese disinformation campaigns against rare earth mining and processing companies — including one targeting Lynas Rare Earths, which has a $30 million contract with the Pentagon to build a plant in Texas.

Earlier today, Mandiant published research that analyzed a Beijing-linked influence operation, dubbed Dragonbridge, that used thousands of fake accounts across dozens of social media platforms, including Facebook, TikTok and Twitter, to spread misinformation about rare earth companies seeking to expand production in the US to the detriment of China, which wants to maintain its global dominance in that industry. 

"The Department of Defense is aware of the recent disinformation campaign, first reported by Mandiant, against Lynas Rare Earth Ltd., a rare earth element firm seeking to establish production capacity in the United States and partner nations, as well as other rare earth mining companies," according to a statement by Uncle Sam. "The department has engaged the relevant interagency stakeholders and partner nations to assist in reviewing the matter.

Lynas Rare Earths, based in Australia, claims to be the world's second-largest producer of separated rare-earth materials, and the largest outside of China. And in 2021, the US Department of Defense signed an agreement with Lynas to build a Texas plant in response to supply-chain shortages.

Rare-earth materials are used in a variety of consumer items such as smart-phone screens and rechargeable batteries for electric and hybrid cars, along with aerospace and defense products like missile guidance systems and aircraft engines.

Mandiant has been tracking Dragonbridge, and its pro-People's Republic of China narratives, since mid-2019. The campaign is made up of thousands of fake accounts across 30 social media platforms and more than 40 other websites and online forums. The more recent campaigns targeting rare-earth companies included posts in English and Chinese, plus other languages including German, Russian, Spanish, Korean, and Japanese.

Dragonbridge unleashes disinformation on planned US facilities

While the social-media warriors originally focused on discrediting pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong before expanding into some failed attempts at mobilizing US protesters in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, it has since turned its sights on rare-earth metals, we're told.

According to Mandiant, the misinformation operation targeting Lynas began earlier this year. This campaign spread content claiming Lynas' planned processing facility in Texas would harm the environment and expose neighbors to radioactive contamination, cancer risks, gene mutation, and deformities in newborns.

Then in June, the researchers observed Dragonbridge targeting a Canadian rare-earth mining company, Appia Rare Earths and Uranium Corp, as well as an American rare-earths manufacturing company called USA Rare Earth with more fake news and negative posts about potential or planned production activities.

This more recent campaign coincided with Appia announcing the discovery of a rare-earths bearing zone in Northern Saskatchewan, Canada. Also in June: USA Rare Earth said it planned to build a processing facility in Oklahoma.

In addition to pushing narratives that criticized the mining companies' expansion plans that benefit US rare earth production activities, Mandiant said the ops also promoted content protesting the Biden administration's decision in March to invoke the Defense Production Act — yet another attempt by America to spur domestic production of and lessen US reliance on China to supply its critical minerals. 

"It targeted an industry of strategic significance to the PRC, including specifically three commercial entities challenging the PRC's global market dominance in that industry," the security shop wrote in its analysis.

Another noteworthy aspect of the newer Dragonbridge influence operations, according to Mandiant, is that "the campaign leveraged more nuanced tactics than what we typically see from pro-PRC information operations."

This includes creating fake online accounts posing as Texas residents expressing concern over environment and health issues related to the planned facility, and posting these campaigns in social media groups "predisposed to be receptive to that content," the threat-intel blog said.

While they didn't seem to have had much luck inciting Texans — or anyone else — to take action and protest the plants, this could be a precursor to future misinformation campaigns by Beijing-backed cyber goons, Mandiant warned. 

As the researchers note, the "significantly expanded online footprint," coupled by the attempts to mobilize protesters in the US, "provides early warning that the actors responsible may be starting to explore more direct means of influence and may be indicative of an emerging intent to motivate real-world activity outside of China's territories." ®

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