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Pro-China Agents Posed as Activists to Protest US, Canada Mines

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(Bloomberg) -- Pro-Chinese agents posed as concerned local residents on social media to try and spark protests over the opening of rare earth mines in the US and Canada, cybersecurity researchers said in a new report.

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The fake Twitter and Facebook accounts were created to give China, the largest producer of rare earth minerals, a competitive advantage, cybersecurity research company Mandiant disclosed on Tuesday.

Mandiant has reported on a network of thousands of fake accounts across numerous social media platforms, websites and forums since 2019 that support China’s political interests. In one recent campaign Mandiant coined “Dragonbridge”, fake accounts purported to be concerned local residents and environmentalists on Facebook to orchestrate protests at the Texas facility of the Australian mining company Lynas Rare Earths Ltd., according to Mandiant. It was unclear who was behind the campaign, the firm said.

The fake accounts claimed that the processing facility would spur irreversible environmental damage and radioactive contamination that could cause cancer and deformities in newborns, Mandiant researchers said. The accounts also criticized President Joe Biden’s plan to expedite mining of these rare minerals.

China has used its dominance in the rare earth minerals market, critical for manufacturing mobile phones and other electronics, to threaten the US with export bans.

As a result, the Pentagon has promised to beef up domestic production. It inked a $30 million deal with Lynas in 2021 to build a facility in Texas, which the Australian company said could help it produce a quarter of the world’s demand.

Dragonbridge was also behind fake accounts criticizing a new mine in Saskatchewan from Canada’s Appia Rare Earths & Uranium Corp., which was announced this month, according to the report. In addition, the campaign’s accounts stoked anger over USA Rare Earth LLC’s plans to open a mine in Oklahoma, Mandiant said.

The Department of Defense said it will review the report, adding it would look into “ongoing concerns regarding a lack of transparency and over-reliance on concentrated foreign sources of critical minerals in key US supply chains for essential global civilian and national security applications.”

Dragonbridge has been behind 10 disinformation campaigns targeting Ukraine, according to Mandiant, including claims that the US was storing bio-weapons in labs in the country, according to Mandiant.

“The private sector is now the victim of attacks by Chinese information operations, which are growing increasingly aggressive,” said John Hultquist, vice president for Mandiant Intelligence.

“Information operations are typically a problem for civil society, governments, and platforms,” he said. “They rarely target the private sector so directly and aggressively.”

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