Climate

A pro-China disinformation campaign is targeting rare earth miners

It’s uncommon for cyber criminals to target private industry. But a new operation has cast doubt on miners looking to gain a foothold in the West in an apparent attempt to protect China’s upper hand in a market that has become increasingly vital.

Construction at the Lynas Corp.'s Advanced Materials Plant in the Gebeng Industrial Zone near Kuantan, Malaysia

It is very uncommon for coordinated disinformation operations to target private industry, rather than governments or civil society, a cybersecurity expert says.

Photo: Goh Seng Chong/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Just when we thought the renewable energy supply chains couldn’t get more fraught, a sophisticated disinformation campaign has taken to social media to further complicate things.

Known as Dragonbridge, the campaign has existed for at least three years, but in the last few months it has shifted its focus to target several mining companies “with negative messaging in response to potential or planned rare earths production activities.” It was initially uncovered by cybersecurity firm Mandiant and peddles narratives in the Chinese interest via its network of thousands of fake social media accounts.

John Hultquist, vice president of threat intelligence for the firm, said it is highly uncommon for coordinated disinformation operations to target private industry, rather than governments or civil society.

“This is a new type of victim for this type of activity,” Hultquist said, though he added that he is not shocked that rare earth metals are Dragonbridge’s focus, given that it tops the list of industries “of great strategic importance” to China.

One of the targets, Australian company Lynas Rare Earths, is planning to construct a processing site in Texas with the support of the Department of Defense, an effort that the campaign is trying to upend by questioning the company’s environmental record. The social media posts, under the guise of being written by outraged locals, have even gone so far as to call for protests of the project.

Accounts call for Malaysians to boycott Lynas. Image: Mandiant

Newly identified Dragonbridge accounts criticizing the Canadian rare earths mining company Appia following its discovery of a new rare earths-bearing zone in Saskatchewan, Canada. Image: Mandiant

Sample tweets by accounts included narratives promoted by previously identified Dragonbridge activity, along with narratives critical of Lynas. Image: Mandiant

Dragonbridge has also targeted Appia Rare Earths & Uranium Corp., a Canadian outfit, and U.S.-based USA Rare Earth with similarly negative messaging. The matter is now under review by the Department of Defense.

China controls a significant chunk of the rare earths market at the moment, a fact that gives the country enormous power as demand for batteries for energy storage and electric vehicles — and, accordingly, their prices — skyrocket. As companies elsewhere try to establish a foothold, it seems hackers operating in the country’s interest are trying to cast doubt on those efforts, and leave the increasingly lucrative market in China’s hands.

“Any kind of effort by the West to develop their own capabilities comes at a great cost to China's leverage,” Hultquist said. “So they're going to do whatever they can to impede this.”

While Mandiant doesn’t have a “smoking gun” proving that Dragonbridge is run or sponsored by the Chinese government, Hultquist notes that the operation is expensive to operate and has expanded significantly over the course of its existence. While it was initially focused largely on Hong Kong, its scope has since swelled; now, it operates on 30 platforms and in at least seven languages.

“As this group grows … we might expect to see more economically focused activity for them,” Hultquist said. “Today it may be rare earth metals. Tomorrow it may be microchips.”

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