A baseless conspiracy theory has targeted a U.S. Army reservist as the source of the Covid-19 coronavirus that erupted in China before racing around the world.
Since March, Maatje Benassi and her husband, Matt, have learned the hard way that stopping such false claims is all but impossible, once they’re circulating on the internet.
The story grew out of Mattje Benassi’s participation in last October’s Military World Games, which were held in the city of Wuhan. A competitive cyclist, she was badly injured in a crash, yet still finished the race.
“While hundreds of athletes from the U.S. military took part in the games, Maatje Benassi was plucked out of the group and given a starring role in the conspiracy theory,” CNN Business says.
Making things even more difficult, the Communist Party of China (CPC) — eager to divert attention from its failings during the initial outbreak in Wuhan — is promoting the conspiracy.
“It’s like waking up from a bad dream going into a nightmare day after day,” Maatje Benassi told CNN Business in an exclusive interview. It was “the first time she has spoken publicly since being smeared online.”
Neither of the Benassis has tested positive for the virus or experienced Covid-19 symptoms. Both are civilians working for the U.S. military — Maajte as a security officer at Fort Belvoir in Virginia, Matt at the Pentagon.
At the heart of the Benassis’ nightmare is a well-known character in the conspiracy world: George Webb, who CNN describes as “a prolific 59-year-old American misinformation peddler” who “for years regularly streamed hours of diatribe live on YouTube.”
“Matt has tried to get the videos taken down from YouTube and to prevent their spread online,” CNN says. “The couple said they contacted an attorney, who told them there was little that could be done, and local police, who told them much the same.”
Months after the military games in Wuhan, in March 2020, Webb started posting about Maatje Benassi on YouTube, his unsubstantiated claims propelled in China by the CPC.
In a phone interview with CNN Business, livestreamed to his followers, “Webb offered no substantive evidence to support his claims about the Benassis and said he considered himself an ‘investigative reporter,’ not a conspiracy theorist.”
Tell that to the Benassis.
“The claims have turned their lives upside down,” CNN says. “The couple say their home address has been posted online and that, before they shut down their accounts, their social media inboxes were overrun with messages from believers of the conspiracy,” some of them threatening.
“’I want everybody to stop harassing me, because this is cyberbullying to me and it’s gone way out of hand,’ Maajte said while fighting back tears,” CNN says.