Maatje Benassi patient zero: US Army reservist at center of Chinese conspiracy theory has life turned upside down as she & husband are blamed for starting deadly virus as they seek to clear their names and remove online material.
‘It’s like waking up from a bad dream going into a nightmare day after day,’
The above are the words a US Army reservist at the center of an online conspiracy theory has used to describe how her life, ‘has been turned upside down,’ after being ‘falsely’ identified as ‘patient zero’ of COVID-19 and having brought it to Wuhan.
Maatje Benassi and her husband Matt described the ‘nightmare’ of the ordeal as the ‘unfounded’ theory began spreading on Chinese social media, which has even been embraced by the Communist Party in Beijing.
Though Benassi has never tested positive or exhibited any symptoms of the coronavirus, she has been accused by conspiracy theorists of conspiring with the US government and bringing COVID-19 to China last October, when she competed as a cyclist in the Military World Games.
After the conspiracy first began making the rounds in March, Benassi says she found herself inundated with death threats along with having letters posted through her door after the couple’s home address was posted online — with the couple saying they are perpetually living in fear of their lives.
Welcome George Webb YouTuber:
Much like coronavirus itself, misinformation about the pandemic has continued to spread and mutate online, even as technology giants such as Google and Facebook have taken measures to try and block the circulation of any dangerous fallacies.
During the first few weeks of the outbreak, hundreds of conspiracy theories emerged, claiming that COVID-19 was a biological weapon created by the US Government.
It wasn’t until March – several months after the first recorded case of coronavirus in Wuhan – that conspiracy theorists turned their attentions to Benassi, a civilian employee at the US Army’s Fort Belvoir in Virginia.
Benassi had competed as a cyclist for the US in Wuhan’s Military World Games five months before. The competition led to her incurring a concussion and a broken rib during one bout. But that says Benassi pales in comparison to what followed next.
One of the most vocal conspiracy theorists involving Benassi is George Webb, a 59-year-old American YouTuber, who has amassed a following of nearly 98K people and 27 million views on his channel.
Webb claims that the novel coronavirus was manufactured in a U.S. military lab and brought to China by Benassi during the military Olympics.
The couple’s inboxes have since been flooded with hateful and threatening messages from all over the world. Maatje and Matt Benassi tell of coming across letters posted through their front door along with comments calling for them to be ‘executed’ or ‘killed by firing squad’ which are uploaded hourly beneath Webb’s videos.
Chinese Foreign Ministry subversion: ‘When did patient zero begin in US?
In a number of his videos, Webb even goes as far to claim Benassi and Italian DJ Benny Benassi somehow conspired together to infect the world with the virus.
The Italian musician, famed for his 2002 song ‘Satisfaction’, says he’s never met the American reservist or her husband, and they’re not even related as far as they know.
The DJ is also falsely identified by Webb as being Dutch, claiming him to be Holland’s first recorded coronavirus patient. He called the allegations ‘crazy’ and said he has never been infected with the virus.
The Chinese state-run newspaper The Global Times later published Webb’s theory, citing him to be an investigative journalist based in Washington DC, and ordered the US to ‘release health and infection information of the US military delegation which came to Wuhan for the Military World Games in October.’
This, the newspaper claimed, would ‘end the conjecture about US military personnel bringing COVID-19 to China.’
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian even publicly promoted the notion that the US brought the virus to China, deflecting criticism away from China’s response to the coronavirus outbreak, tweeting: ‘When did patient zero begin in US? How many people are infected? What are the names of the hospitals? It might be US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan. Be transparent! Make public your data! US owe us an explanation!
US Defense Secretary Mark Esper called the claims ‘ridiculous’ and said it was irresponsible for someone speaking on behalf of the Chinese government to make such an outburst.
Webb’s videos attacking the Benassis have since been translated into Chinese and uploaded thousands of times to popular platforms in the country such as WeChat, Weibo, and Xigua Video.
Speaking to CNN, Webb failed to offer any substantive evidence to back up his claims, citing an unnamed source who told him Benassi ‘had tested positive for coronavirus’, failing to offer any further information.
Benassi’s husband Matt, a civilian employee for the Air Force at the Pentagon, said he has tried to have Webb’s videos – and many others like them – removed from YouTube, while being told by police and an attorney that little could be done.
Victims of cyberbullying: At what cost free speech?
Though the couple both work for the US government, they say they’re experiencing same feelings of helplessness as others who find themselves the targets of misinformation and harassment.
‘I want everybody to stop harassing me, because this is cyberbullying to me and it’s gone way out of hand,’ Benassi said
‘It’s gone too far and it’s got to stop, Because you never know, someone might take it so [far] and maybe their parent or child died of the coronavirus and then they’re going to come to my house and think I did this.
‘There are times that it gets to me,’ she continued. ‘I just know, go to my own little place [to hide from it all].’
Matt Benassi fears the theories leveled against his wife could inspire another ‘Pizzagate’ incident, referencing a different conspiracy theory that claimed a pedophilia ring involving Hillary Clinton was operating inside a Washington DC pizzeria.
‘It’s really hard to hold him [Webb] accountable,’ Matt Benassi told CNN. ‘Law enforcement will tell you that there’s nothing that we can do about it because we have free speech in this country. Then they say, “Go talk to a civil attorney,” so we did.
‘We talked to an attorney. You quickly realize that for folks like us, it’s just too expensive to litigate something like this. We get no recourse from law enforcement. We get no recourse from the courts.’
Regardless of what action YouTube or other social media platforms may take, for Maatje Benassi, the ‘damage is already done.’
‘I know it [will] never be the same. Every time you’re going to Google my name, it will pop up as patient zero,’ she said.