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She has been wrongly accused of starting the pandemic: 'The damage is done.'

Maatje Benassi, a United States Army reservist and mother of two, has found herself at the center of a conspiracy theory.

She has been wrongly accused of starting the pandemic: 'The damage is done.'
Image Source: Phynart Studio / Getty Images

Perhaps the only thing spreading as fast as this virus is misinformation. In an age when all the world's knowledge is readily available at our fingertips, it is no surprise that we also have equal access to false information. However, that has serious repercussions. Just ask Maatje Benassi, a United States Army reservist and mother of two. Over the past few weeks, she has been the target of a rapidly spreading conspiracy theory. It has been claimed that she is patient zero and "brought" the disease to China, CNN reports. Now, the false allegation is making its way through every nook and cranny of the internet. Meanwhile, Benassi's life has been turned upside down.




Many of us have become familiar with the (false) notion that the novel Coronavirus was developed as a bioweapon. In the early stages of this conspiracy theory, theorists began propagating the idea that the alleged bioweapon was manufactured by the United States. In fact, one member of the Chinese government publicly defended this claim, further extending the notion that US military officials brought the virus to China. This is where Benassi comes in. She was one of the many US military officials who participated in the cycling competition at the Military World Games, which is essentially the military Olympics. The sporting event was hosted by the city of Wuhan in China, the infamous origin of the deadly virus.




Benassi, unfortunately, experienced a terrible accident on her final lap which left her with a fractured rib and a concussion. Though she completed the race, she was cherrypicked out of the hundreds of US military officials and placed center stage in the narrative about the ongoing pandemic. Her "most prominent cheerleader" as patient zero, as Donie O'Sullivan writing for CNN described it, was - is - George Webb. Webb is famous for his work on YouTube, where he streams hours of misinformation. Through his peddling of sensationalized "news" and false information, this YouTuber has been able to rack up more than 27 million views and almost 100,000 dedicated followers.




In one video, he peddled the idea that Benassi was, in fact, patient zero, though she never even tested positive for the virus. He went so far as to claim that Italian DJ Benny Benassi also had the novel Coronavirus. While this may seem farfetched, the "Benassi plot" has become rather popular, with millions of viewers genuinely believing in the false allegation. The DJ, Benassi, and her husband Matt Benassi, have since come forward to deny all allegations - to no avail. Ever since the conspiracy theory went viral, the couple's social media profiles - now-deleted - have been flooded with angry messages from believers of the theory. Their home address was posted online. They have been the targets of a widespread smear campaign.




"It's like waking up from a bad dream going into a nightmare day after day," Benassi stated in an exclusive interview with CNN. "I want everybody to stop harassing me because this is cyberbullying to me and it's gone way out of hand." Little is being done to prevent the conspiracy theory from reaching even more gullible viewers and legal recourse is near impossible to achieve. Furthermore, law enforcement can do little to help. Her husband Matt explained, "It's really hard to hold him [Webb] accountable. 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."




When CNN interviewed Webb, he could offer no real evidence to support his claims. He added that he considered himself an "investigative reporter" - not a conspiracy theorist. Well, his "investigative reporting" has turned a couple's life upside down. They live in fear of emboldened "cyber mobs" every single day. "The damage is done," Benassi affirmed. "I know it [will] never be the same. Every time you're going to Google my name, it will pop up as patient zero." The mother of two is unsure about how to move forward, but this perhaps a lesson in news literacy for all of us. Misinformation has an undeniable impact on real people's lives. We must take preventative measures in order to ensure that misinformation, just like the virus, does not spread like wildfire.



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