A Chinese Communist Party information operation is using environmental, political and health concerns to undermine efforts to diversify global rare earth supply chains. The operation focuses on audiences in the United States, Australia and Malaysia. One of the main targets of the smear campaign is Australian mining company Lynas Rare Earths. Others include the Government of Western Australia.
This is the first time that this persistent CCP-backed network – which ASPI has been tracking in various forms since 2019 – has targeted a commercial entity for strategic purposes. In this case, the goal is to support China’s dominance in the global rare earth supply chain and limit the ability of Western companies to compete. This network was simultaneously identified by cybersecurity firm Mandiant as ASPI’s investigation was being finalized.
Since March, ASPI has been tracking a network of inauthentic accounts on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other forums spreading misinformation about the environmental damage caused by Malaysia’s Lynas rare earths refinery and targeting Lynas CEO Amanda Lacaze. The network also targeted the Governor of Oklahoma Kevin Stitt online because of his public support for breaking the United States’ reliance on China’s rare earth supply chain, in part through rare earth manufacturing in his state.
ASPI assesses that these accounts likely belong to the same Supported by the CCP network which targeted the Quad and Japanese defense policy earlier this year and which is currently harassing high profile Asian women working for Western media and human rights organizations.
Before posting about rare earth mining, these accounts amplified content smearing Chinese virologist Yan Limeng and recycled profile pictures previously used by suspended accounts. They also show posting patterns similar to past iterations of the network.
Rare earths are essential components present in all modern technologies, such as electric vehicles, solar panels, semiconductors and defense weapon systems, and are considered as raw materials of strategic importance for the economic and military security. Lynas is the only significant producer of rare earths outside of China, and democratic countries around the world are seeking to reduce their dependence on Chinese exports.
In 2021, China produced about 60% of the world’s rare earths and was responsible for 78% of U.S. rare earth imports between 2017 and 2020. In addition to economic benefits, rare earth supply chain dominance gives the CCP a strategic advantage that it can leverage to achieve political goals. For example, the Chinese government blocked rare earth exports to Japan to secure the release of a Chinese fishing boat captain detained in one of the CCP’s first cases of economic coercion. The Japanese government then backed Japanese trading company Sojitz to sign a $250 million deal with Lynas to supply rare earths and help build the Malaysian Lynas refinery. This reduced Japan’s dependence on Chinese rare earths from 90% in 2010 to 58% within a decade.
This latest CCP-related information operation presumably seeks to damage Lynas’ reputation and complicate his efforts to increase rare earth production and expand his operations. Multiple accounts in this network warned investors not to buy Lynas shares, falsely claimed the company was polluting the environment, and called for a boycott in English and Mandarin. The accounts increased the frequency of their posts after Lynas announced in June 2022 that it had signed an additional $120 million contract with the Pentagon to support the construction of a rare earths separation facility in Texas. In response, accounts also falsely claimed that there had been protests in the United States and present as American citizens concerned about environmental pollution.
In 2019, Malaysian residents and activists raised good faith concerns about the health and environmental risks posed by Malaysia’s Lynas refinery. Since then, several independent and scientific reviews, including by the International Atomic Energy Agency and a Malaysian government executive review board, have concluded that Lynas complies with all relevant regulations and has adopted the international best practices. In 2020, Lynas received a three-year license extension from the Malaysian government after demonstrating that its operations were safe and agreeing not to import materials carrying low-level radioactive waste into the country.
Inauthentic accounts, portraying themselves primarily as Western women, co-opted these concerns in 2022 and exaggerated other claims of environmental and health risks. The accounts spread posts that combine true events with false narratives. An account named “Joy Greene” shared an image of real protests in 2019 organized by the group Save Malaysia Stop Lynas which was combined with images of medical conditions falsely attributed to Lynas. In the screenshot below, the top left image shows a child exposed to pollution near an unrelated mine in Guatemala according to HuffPost. The top right image shows skin lesions from arsenic poisoning unrelated to Lynas’ operations. It was taken in 2009. In another image posted on May 23, 2022, an Instagram account named ‘ewersalison1’ urged people to join protests against ‘Lynas radioactive waste’, which were due to take place three years ago. .
Agents handling these accounts appear to be actively monitoring the #Lynas hashtag and tweets containing “Lynas”. Network accounts responded to every tweet using the #Lynas hashtag within days and sometimes mistakenly targeted tweets tagging an environmental writer Mark Lynas, which has no connection with the Australian mining company. Twitter now ranks tweets from accounts in this network among the top posts in simple keyword searches such as “Lynas pollution” and “Lynas Australia”.
Other accounts target a broader US audience as part of a co-ordinated coercive campaign to sway US public opinion against the domestic development of rare earth production. Images shared by accounts misrepresent US rare earth mining as destroying the environment or spreading nuclear-related pollution. Unlike posts that reused images from protests in Malaysia, the images were customized for this part of the campaign and indicated that the operators had an in-house graphic design team.
Engagement with posts in this campaign was low across all platforms; however, some accounts seemed to engage with seemingly real individuals and gain popularity. An investment-focused account said it was “unaware” of Lynas’ environmental pollution allegations that were suggested to them by this network and that they were shocked by it. Another Facebook post racked up 126 likes to claim polluters were “off the hook” and Americans were “suffering the consequences” for critical mineral production, but it was unclear if the users liking the post were genuine. Prior to this post, this account had never received an interaction.
This activity shows that the CCP continues to abuse its asymmetrical access to Western information spaces and persistently deploys coordinated and inauthentic campaigns against global citizens and businesses to limit their ability to express their commercial or human rights. It also shows that US social media platforms are struggling to keep up and need to change their thinking and approaches.
The complexity of the actors involved and the tactics deployed underscores the need to create an Indo-Pacific Hybrid Threat Center, which ASPI recently recommended as a way to build situational awareness on the growing range of hybrid threats in the region. Through research and analysis, engagement, information sharing and capacity building, such a center would function as a confidence-building measure and contribute to regional stability and the security of nations. individual.