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China mimicked protestors to tighten grip on coveted metals, says report

A misinformation campaign backed by the Asian superpower is leveraging real-life protests against a controversial rare-earth mining project in the West to shore up Beijing’s near-monopoly on the very same industry, analyst Mandiant claims.

Information operations (IO) group Dragonbridge, believed by Mandiant to be backed by China, has been targeting Western rare earth metal mining companies Lynas, Appia, and USA Rare Earth with Twitter posts designed to mimic legitimate environmental protests, according to its latest report.

Cybernews checked the Twitter handles of several of the posts cited by Mandiant and found that several had been suspended by the social media platform, although it did not specify why.

“While we cannot comment on specifics, Mandiant has reached out to social media platforms regarding this activity and they have taken action,” said the analyst when asked for further details. “Our assessment is indeed that the accounts we have identified are part of a coordinated and inauthentic network promoting content in support of PRC [People’s Republic of China] interests.”

It added: “We have examined various characteristics of the accounts and their activity to arrive at the assessment that the accounts are misrepresenting their true identities and origins. For example, accounts used profile photos appropriated from various online sources, including stock photography and photographs of other real (unrelated) individuals.”

Most of the Twitter accounts were created in “clusters” between March and June, with many usernames following a similar naming pattern, said Mandiant, adding that it had previously observed Dragonbridge using a similar tactic in other IO campaigns.

On May 9, “Teresa Brown”, posting under the Twitter alias @TeresaB20843484, said: “I’m pretty sure we’re just government guinea pigs.” Roughly a fortnight later, “Jackie Eberhart”, aka @JackieE79156511, wrote: “We must stand up and boycott Lynas.” Both Twitter accounts have since been suspended.

The tweet-based IO campaign also co-opted hashtags used by authentic protestors, such as #lynas, #rareearth, #minerals, #australia, #news, #rareearthminerals, and #lynasgetout.

Collage of tweets used in China groups information operations campaign

Where truth and lies meet

That said, Lynas has been subjected to real-life protests, although their legitimacy has also been called into question by some.

Based in Malaysia and Australia, the company is thought to control about 10% of the rare-earth metals industry, a group of 17 chemically related elements essential to the manufacture of high-tech devices including smartphones, camera and telescope lenses, and magnets.

According to a report by US think tank the Center for Strategic and International Studies published last year, China accounts for 85% of the world’s supply of rare earths, controlling two-thirds of the global supply of rare metal and mineral reserves. This means Lynas is its leading Western competitor.

In 2019, Lynas was targeted by an environmental campaign in Malaysia spearheaded by Greenpeace, which called for its facilities there to be shut down. But some observers have suggested that the activist group itself is unduly influenced by China, remaining silent on its domestic environmental hazards while campaigning for its potential rivals to be shut down abroad.

Similarly, there appears to be no shortage of controversy regarding how dangerous rare-earth mining actually is – fertile grounds, Mandiant believes, for state-backed threat actors to wage a war of disinformation.

“Mandiant identified what we assess with high confidence to be Dragonbridge accounts on multiple social media platforms and at least one forum, including those posing as concerned residents protesting Lynas’ planned construction of a rare earths processing facility in Texas,” it said.

“The accounts claimed that by placing the Lynas plant in Texas, the Biden administration would expose the area to irreversible environmental damage and the local population to radioactive contamination, and adverse health effects such as cancer risks, gene mutation, and deformities in newborns.”

However, it has long been common knowledge that China itself has “cancer villages” as a result of its domestic mining projects, and Western observers have also pointed to the health risks associated with the rare earth industry – suggesting that the fears Dragonbridge is playing on are well founded.

Weaponizing protest

“While at least some of the images featured in the posts are legitimate and have been featured in news outlets reporting on demonstrations against Lynas, we assess that this campaign has leveraged these images to promote their desired narratives,” said Mandiant. “However, this does not preclude the fact that real individuals may also share and post about the views advocated by the campaign.”

It added: “What differentiates this activity from that involving real individuals is that it is used for or promoted through deceptive means, for the purpose of manipulating the information environment. Information operations campaigns that we track often leverage real material, including messaging by real individuals, toward their own agendas.”

Cybernews reached out to Greenpeace for comment on Mandiant’s claims, and prior allegations that the group itself had been compromised by Chinese interests, but at the time of writing had received no reply.

Mandiant said Dragonbridge’s targeting of rare earth businesses “demonstrates an interest in industries of strategic importance to the PRC that we had not previously observed from the campaign.”

“Given Chinese President Xi Jinping’s continued emphasis on a broad, holistic understanding of PRC national security that encompasses areas including information and resource security, we may see global competitors in other industries targeted by such information operations,” it added.

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