Cyberattackers are targeting rare earth mining companies in a new campaign designed to keep China in a dominant position in the market.
On June 28, Mandiant published new research on Dragonbridge, a disinformation program focused on disrupting rare earth facilities.
The rare earth market is driven by demand for consumer products, including smartphones and PCs, due to their role in the development of electronics, circuit boards and batteries. The aerospace and military technology industries also depend on the supply of rare earths.
China is one of the world’s largest exporters of rare earth elements. Despite the country’s current dominant position, the Dragonbridge Group, known for promoting the political interests of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), is working to disrupt rare earth suppliers and processors outside the country.
Dragonbridge is a large network with thousands of accounts on many social networks and communication channels. According to Mandiant, the network has been active since 2019, distorting and publishing online narratives that benefit China’s ruling party.
However, recently researchers have watched a shift in tactics, leading to an expansion of disinformation campaigns targeting mining companies.
Among the companies targeted are the Australian mining company Lynas Rare Earths Ltd.
Now Dragonbridge is turning its attention to Canada and the United States. This month, the disinformation group was linked to propaganda activities aimed at tarnishing the reputations of Canadian companies Appia Rare Earths and Uranium Corp., as well as USA Rare Earth.
Specifically, the group appears to be promoting material critical of new mining and production facilities.
Appia has located a potential site for mining in northern Saskatchewan, Canada, while USA Rare Earth intends to build a new facility in Oklahoma later this year.
The disinformation network operates thousands of fake accounts on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. The majority of the content is posted by fake concerned US “citizens” in English, with a scattering of posts also written in Chinese and Malay.
One potential reason for this change in tactics is Title III of the US Defense Production Act (DPA) of 2022. The law was signed by US President Biden to encourage domestic production of rare earths and other materials , thereby reducing dependence on exports from other countries, including China.
It should also be noted that the companies targeted by Dragonbridge are large enough that they could potentially threaten China’s dominance in the future.
“Although the activity we detail here does not appear to have been particularly effective and received only limited engagement from seemingly real individuals, the campaign’s micro-targeting of specific audiences suggests the possibility of using similar means to manipulate public discourse surrounding other U.S. political issues to the PRC’s advantage,” the researchers said.
Mandiant reached out to the companies at the heart of Dragonbridge’s campaigns, as well as the social networks the group uses to promote its stories.
“Economic decoupling with China will only encourage further victimization of the private sector by Chinese actors,” commented John Hultquist, vice president of Mandiant Intelligence. “Unfortunately, businesses will be on the front lines of a fight that may not be fair.”
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