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HomeWorldPro-China group running online campaign against US rare-earths industry, says cybersecurity firm

Pro-China group running online campaign against US rare-earths industry, says cybersecurity firm

A new report by US cybersecurity firm Mandiant says pro-China group Dragonbridge is using ‘nuanced tactics’ against firms like Lynas, Appia, and USA Rare Earth.

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New Delhi: A pro-China group has been allegedly running an online social media campaign to target US’ rare-earths industry, American cybersecurity firm Mandiant has claimed.

According to the American Geosciences Institute, rare-earths refer to 17 metallic elements that form necessary components for the manufacture of products like mobile phones, televisions, electric vehicles and defence equipment such as radars and sonar systems.

A report released Tuesday by Mandiant says a pro-China group named Dragonbridge has been using “nuanced tactics” against firms like Lynas, Appia, and USA Rare Earth. These included posing as local residents online to drum up protests against the construction of a Lynas rare-earths processing facility in Texas. The facility’s development is the result of an agreement signed between the US Department of Defense and Lynas to boost America’s rare-earths domestic industry.

“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,” the Mandiant report said.

‘Tactics to manipulate public discourse’

Elaborating on its claims, Mandiant also shared several screenshots of purported sockpuppet Twitter and Facebook accounts dating from April and May that called for a boycott and shared concerns over Lynas and its rare-earths plant. Mandiant also found other “newly identified” social media accounts that were criticising Appia and USA Rare Earth, and which posted memes or links that were “known Dragonbridge content”.

These accounts, Mandiant claims, reflect characteristics synonymous with activity of sockpuppet accounts run by Dragonbridge in the past.

“For example, accounts used profile photos appropriated from various online sources, including stock photography, animals, and cartoons, suggesting that they sought to obfuscate their identities…Many of the usernames consisted of English-language names followed by seemingly random numeric strings.

“In addition to the accounts’ posting of identical or similar rare earths-related content, we also observed some of the accounts post identical or similar apolitical content, such as inspirational quotes, wellness, travel, and sports content,” the report added.

However, the direct impact of these social media posts singled out by Mandiant appears to have been limited, by the cybersecurity firm’s own admission. What Mandiant attempted to highlight is the “microtargeting” of a local matter, as an example of tactics used to “manipulate public discourse surrounding other US political issues to [China’s] advantage”.

As such, Mandiant considers Dragonbridge’s online activity to be indicative of the extent to which China views the rare-earths industry as strategically important. However, the lack of tangible impact of the specific posts represents a “limiting factor” in driving significant enough engagement among Americans.

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