Pentagon investigates China’s rare earth trolling campaign

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The US Department of Defense said it was 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 factory in Texas.

Earlier today, Mandiant published research analyzing a Beijing-linked influence operation dubbed Dragonbridge that used thousands of fake accounts on dozens of social media platforms, including Facebook, TikTok and Twitter, to spread misinformation about rare earth companies seeking to expand production into the United States at the expense of China, which wants to maintain its global dominance in this 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 company seeking to establish production capacity in the United States. and in partner countries, as well as other rare earth mining companies,” according to a statement by Uncle Sam. “The department has engaged inter-agency stakeholders and relevant partner countries to help look into the matter.

Lynas Rare Earths, based in Australia, complaints to be the world’s second largest producer of separated rare earths, and the largest outside of China. And in 2021, the US Department of Defense sign an agreement with Lynas to build a factory in Texas 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, as well as aerospace and defense products like missile guidance systems and aircraft engines.

Mandiant has been following Dragonbridge and its pro-People’s Republic of China narratives since mid-2019. The campaign is made up of thousands of fake accounts on 30 social media platforms and over 40 other websites and online forums. The most recent campaigns targeting rare earth companies have included posts in English and Chinese, as well as other languages ​​including German, Russian, Spanish, Korean and Japanese.

Dragonbridge unleashes misinformation on planned US facilities

As social media warriors originally focused on discrediting pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong before expanding to some unsuccessful attempts to mobilize American protesters in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, he has since turned to rare earth metals, we are told.

According to Mandiant, the disinformation operation targeting Lynas started earlier this year. This campaign ran content claiming that the planned Lynas, Texas processing facility would harm the environment and expose neighbors to radioactive contamination, cancer risks, genetic mutations and birth defects. born.

Then in June, researchers observed Dragonbridge targeting a Canadian rare earth mining company, Appia Rare Earths and Uranium Corp, as well as an American rare earth manufacturing company called USA Rare Earth with more fake news and negative messages on potential or expected production. Activities.

This more recent campaign coincided with Appia announcing the discovery of an area containing rare earths in northern Saskatchewan, Canada. Also in June: USA Rare Earth announced plans to to build a processing facility in Oklahoma.

In addition to pushing stories critical of mining companies’ expansion plans that benefit U.S. rare earth production operations, Mandiant said the operations have also promoted content protesting the Biden administration’s March decision to invoke the Defense Production Act – yet another attempt by America to boost domestic production and reduce US reliance on China to supply its critical minerals.

“It targeted an industry of strategic importance to the PRC, specifically including three business entities challenging the PRC’s global market dominance in this industry,” the security outlet wrote in its analysis.

Another notable aspect of Dragonbridge’s new influence operations, according to Mandiant, is that “the campaign employed more nuanced tactics than what we typically see in pro-PRC info ops.”

This includes creating fake online accounts posing as Texas residents expressing concern about environmental and health issues related to the planned facility, and posting these campaigns in social media groups “predisposed to be receptive to this content,” the Threat-Intel blog said.

While they don’t seem to have had much luck in getting Texans — or anyone else — to take action and protest against the plants, it could be a precursor to future misinformation campaigns by backed cyber morons. by Beijing, Mandiant warned.

As the researchers note, the “significantly expanded online footprint,” coupled with protester mobilization attempts in the United States, “provides an early warning that responsible actors may begin to explore more direct avenues of influence and may indicate an emergent intent to motivate real-world activity outside of Chinese territories.” ®

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