A flurry of fake social media accounts have attempted to forestall American and Canadian mining efforts that would undermine China’s dominance in the rare earth market.
Rare earth materials are used in the production of many electronic devices and national defense necessities like missile guidance systems and aircraft engines. As the largest producer of rare earth materials, China has long kept Western countries at its mercy to sustain national supply chains and to maintain an effective military.
For this reason, China has a strong motive to undermine global competitors.
According to Mandiant, an American cyber security firm located in Virginia has made a concerted effort to disrupt the development of new rare earth mines in Texas, Oklahoma, and Saskatchewan just in the last two years through the use of a pro-China social media campaign dubbed “Dragonbridge.” In most cases, Dragonbridge accounts pose as local residents concerned about the impact these new rare earth mines will have on the environment and on the health and safety of the surrounding community.
In 2021, for example, when the Department of Defense reached an agreement with Lynas Rare Earths Ltd. of Australia to build a mine on the Texas Gulf Coast, accounts associated with Dragonbridge claimed that the mine would release radioactive material into the environment, where it could “poison” children and pollute the landscape.
Mandiant also claims that Dragonbridge accounts have attempted to tarnish the global perception of Ukraine by “echoing narratives promoted by Russian state media and influence campaigns” about “the existence of Pentagon-linked laboratories conducting biological weapons research in Ukraine.” Russia and China have forged a stronger alliance in recent months, so this anti-Ukraine social media campaign serves the interests of both Russia and China.
While social media mobs ginned up by fake accounts are nothing new, Mandiant claims that Dragonbridge has evolved and demonstrated more sophistication than previous social media sabotage efforts. For example, Dragonbridge accounts supposedly “microtarget” particular audiences of real people who might already be sympathetic to their cause and co-opt the messages of real persons — especially politicians and community leaders — to buttress their agenda.
Still, Mandiant says that these accounts often manifest the same telltale attributes of fake accounts. Their usernames are usually “English-language names followed by seemingly random numeric strings,” they have animals or cartoons as profile pictures, they have joined social media platforms between March and June of this year, and they often try to demonstrate authenticity by sharing inspirational quotes or discussing apolitical topics like sports.
Luckily, they have been rather ineffective at influencing social media conversations and inciting action. However, Mandiant warns that stoking social outrage is their goal and that “DRAGONBRIDGE’s recent activity attempts to incite protests against the Lynas facility in Texas in particular shows a similar interest in influencing real-world activity to” advance Chinese interests.
The source of the campaign has not yet been determined.