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Pro-China group attacks US rare earths plant in fake social media posts

A pro-Chinese government group has impersonated environmental campaigners on social media platforms in an effort to undermine rare earths producers in the US and Canada, according to a cyber security consultancy.

Mandiant said the group behind the attacks, known as Dragonbridge, had used fake Facebook and Twitter accounts to claim a US government-funded rare earths refinery in Texas being built by Australian group Lynas Rare Earths would “expose the area to irreversible environmental damage” and “radioactive contamination”.

Mandiant described Dragonbridge as a “pro-People’s Republic of China (PRC) network” but did not identify it in more detail. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute think-tank corroborated Mandiant’s report to the Financial Times.

The US and its allies in Europe and Asia are working to build supply chains that bypass China for critical minerals such as lithium, rare earths and cobalt, which are vital to renewable energy technology, electric vehicles and high-tech military equipment.

China dominates the processing of these minerals, which has raised concerns in the US as diplomatic and trade relations with Beijing have deteriorated in recent years.

Mandiant’s findings were corroborated by Albert Zhang, a cyber policy expert at think-tank the ASPI who has been following Dragonbridge since 2019.

“This is the first time this persistent Chinese Communist party-backed network . . . has targeted a commercial entity for strategic purposes,” he wrote in a report published on Wednesday.

Zhang said that the information operations were “one part of a broader co-ordinated effort to undermine democratic attempts to reduce dependence on Chinese rare earths exports”.

Dragonbridge first came to Mandiant’s attention in 2019 with social media campaigns on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube opposing anti-government protests in Hong Kong. The group has since branched out into a range of areas including the Covid-19 pandemic and US politics.

“Recently, we identified and investigated a subset of information operations activity we attribute to the Dragonbridge campaign across social media,” Mandiant said in a blog post.

The cyber security firm said it had also monitored campaigns against rare earths companies Appia Rare Earths & Uranium Corp and USA Rare Earth, and against US president Joe Biden’s Defense Production Act, a Korean war-era law under which Washington is aiming to increase domestic production of critical minerals.

Mandiant said the campaigns had used “inauthentic social media and forum accounts, including those posing as residents in Texas to feign concern over environmental and health issues surrounding the plant”.

One Facebook post, purporting to be from someone named Cox Teri but which Mandiant claimed was created by Dragonbridge, read: “My friends and I have been resisting the construction of a rare earth processing plant in Texas by Lynas. If nothing is done, Lynas’ waste discharge will directly or indirectly affect the health of local residents, and this pollution is irreversible.”

Lynas said in a statement it had been “the subject of disinformation campaigns in Malaysia for some years, however, this is the first time we have seen evidence of direct links between fake social media accounts spreading disinformation and political agendas”. It defended its environmental record in Malaysia, which was the subject of a report by Greenpeace in 2014.

The US Department of Defense said it “appreciates the diligence of Mandiant in identifying this disinformation campaign, and will continue to work with our partners to provide accurate information related to this and other supply chain investments”.

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