By Zeba Siddiqui
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - A pro-China propaganda campaign used fake social media accounts to try to stir up opposition, including protests, against mining firms that challenge China's business interests, U.S.-based cybersecurity firm Mandiant said on Tuesday.
While politically motivated disinformation campaigns on social media have grown increasingly common, researchers say, such an operation targeting a specific industry of strategic importance to China is rare.
The digital campaign, known to researchers as Dragonbridge, flooded Twitter and Facebook in recent months with posts raising environmental and health concerns over the operations of three major mining firms: Australia’s Lynas Rare Earths Ltd, Canada’s Appia Rare Earths and Uranium Corp, and USA Rare Earth.
China's Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT) and embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.
Lynas and Appia told Reuters they heard of the campaign from Mandiant. "We tried to investigate what happened but we couldn’t figure out anything," Appia Chief Executive Tom Drivas said.
USA Rare Earth, as well as social media firms Facebook and Twitter, did not respond to requests for comment.
The bogus social media accounts got more aggressive this month after the latter two firms laid out new mining plans, Mandiant said in its report.
The report said the campaign against Lynas called for protests over its planned construction of a rare earths processing facility in Texas. While it failed to launch actual protests, accounts pretended they were successful by posting photos of unrelated, older protests in Malaysia.
Some posts specifically criticized U.S. President Joe Biden’s move in March to invoke a law aimed at reducing U.S. reliance on Chinese minerals.
China dominates the global market for rare earth elements - a critical geopolitical leverage, foreign policy experts say.
"An operation like this requires a well-funded and well-staffed entity," said John Hultquist, Mandiant's vice president of intelligence.
Mandiant said it lacked enough data to attribute the activity to a specific known actor.
While the campaign's impact appeared limited and most of the social media accounts were recently removed, Hultquist said it could mean other business competitors to China will be similarly targeted in the future.
Some of the fake accounts invaded a public, environmentally-conscious Facebook group to allege the mining firms and the U.S. government were trying to expose local populations to radioactive contamination.
“This is a particularly interesting case because they're co-opting existing political movements and attitudes to gain support for their strategic goals,” said Dakota Cary, a security consultant focused on China at the Krebs Stamos Group.
(Reporting by Zeba Siddiqui in SAN FRANCISCO; Editing by Howard Goller)