Orchestrated social media campaigns against organisations have been ongoing and new research suggests that cyber-groups affiliated to China are targeting specific rare earth mining companies in an effort to sustain the country’s dominant position in the global supply chain of rare earths minerals.
According to research by cybersecurity company, Mandiant, thousands of fake accounts across numerous social media platforms, websites and forums have launched an orchestrated campaign targeting the Australian rare earths mining company, Lynas Rare Earths.
The content criticised the company’s alleged environmental record and called for protests against its planned construction of a rare earths processing facility in Texas, US.
Subsequently, Mandiant observed that the same group, affiliated with a pro-China group called Dragonbridge, began to target the Canadian rare earths mining company Appia Rare Earths & Uranium Corp and the American rare earths manufacturing company USA Rare Earth with negative messaging in response to potential or planned rare earths production activities involving these companies.
According to Mandiant, Dragonbridge is a vast network comprising thousands of accounts on various social media platforms and has been active since 2019, pushing online narratives “that benefit China”.
Mandiant had contacted Lynas, Appia, and USA Rare Earth about this activity, as well as social media platforms where this campaign promoted content.
According to a Reuters report Lynas and Appia said “they tried to investigate what happened” but couldn’t “figure out anything”.
Reuters added that USA Rare Earth as well as Facebook and Twitter did not respond to requests for comment.
According to Mandiant, the campaign also promoted content criticising the Biden administration’s decision to invoke the Defence Production Act in March this year to expedite the domestic production of critical minerals to end U.S. reliance on China for its supply.
Rare earth metals are a critical part of consumer and defence products such as missile guidance systems and aircraft engines.
Mandiant notes that China dominates the global market for rare earth elements.
About 35 percent of the global reserves of rare earths are in China and in 2018 it accounted for 70 percent of the total global rare earths production.
During the trade war between the US and China, the latter threatened to curb exports of rare earth minerals to the US.
Seeking to diversify supply, in 2021, the US Department of Defence signed an agreement with Lynas, the world’s largest rare earths mining and processing company outside China, to construct the Texas processing facility.
In early June 2022, the Canadian rare earths miner Appia announced the discovery of new rare earths bearing zone in Northern Saskatchewan, Canada.
Similarly, the American rare earths supplier USA Rare Earth announced plans for a rare earths processing facility in Oklahoma in mid-June.
Change in strategy
Mandiant notes that while the Dragonbridge group has been campaigning on broad pro-China themes, the latest attack on the mining companies showed a new strategy to “narrowly target other specific industries or companies that may be relevant to China’s strategic interests, beyond the promotion of geopolitical narratives”.
The research said that the current spate of attacks has “demonstrated the use of incrementally more sophisticated tactics, such as the micro-targeting of audiences favourable to its messaging and the leveraging of criticism by real individuals to support its narratives and agenda”.
However, its “poor execution” remains a limiting factor in the campaign’s ability to effectively garner significant engagement, Mandiant said.
“We previously reported on the campaign’s attempts to physically mobilise protesters in the US in September 2021 and noted then that the campaign was unsuccessful in doing so.
“Dragonbridge’s recent activity attempts to incite protests against the Lynas facility in Texas in particular shows a similar interest in influencing real-world activity to achieve its objectives, and a similar failure in such attempts,” the Mandiant research said.