A US Army reservist and mother-of-two from the US state of Virginia has become the helpless target of conspiracy theorists, who have falsely accused her of starting the global coronavirus pandemic.
Maatje Benassi says the bogus claim she is the COVID-19 patient zero has gone viral on social media in China, leaving her and her husband, a retired Air Force officer, fearing for their lives, CNN reported Monday.
“It’s like waking up from a bad dream going into a nightmare day after day,” Benassi, who works at Fort Belvoir in Virginia, told CNN. “Every time you’re going to Google my name, it will pop up as patient zero.”
YouTube videos attacking the Benassi family have now become commonplace on WeChat, Weibo and Xigua, popular platforms that are translated into Chinese, with the false claim spreading as fast as the virus at the centre of the conspiracy theory.
The bizarre claim stems from Benassi’s visit in October to Wuhan.
Benassi competed in the Military World Games in Wuhan, taking part in a cycling competition that left her with a fractured rib and a concussion.
Although hundreds of other athletes took part in the games, Benassi was somehow singled out by conspiracy theorists — and it remains unknown why.
Chief among those blamed for the spread of the claim is George Webb, identified by CNN as “a prolific 59-year-old American misinformation peddler,” whose conspiracy YouTube videos have nearly 100,000 followers and more than 27 million views.
Webb could provide no evidence to back up his claim that Benassi launched the virus when interviewed by the news network last week, but claimed he was an investigative reporter, not a conspiracy theorist.
But the false claims have taken root on social media, and have made the Benassis the target of very real threats — and there’s nothing they can do about it.
“It’s really hard to hold him accountable,” Matt Benassi, Maatje’s husband, said of Webb. “Law enforcement will tell you that there’s nothing that we can do about it because we have free speech in this country. They say, ‘Go talk to a civil attorney.’ So we did. We talked to an attorney.
“You quickly realise that for folks like us, it’s just too expensive to litigate something like this,” he said. “We get no recourse from law enforcement. We get no recourse from the courts.”
Originally published as ‘Patient zero’ theory ruined this family