Despite a total absence of evidence, Fort Belvoir-based US Army reservist Maatje Benassi has become the focus of a bizarre YouTube conspiracy theory about the origins of the novel coronavirus.
US Army Reservist Maatje Benassi has become the center of a wild coronavirus conspiracy theory that has left her private information public, and her family in constant fear of ongoing harassment. According to CNN, until recently, Benassi was a normal security officer at Fort Belvoir, in Northern Virginia. However, as a competitive cyclist, she happened to compete in the 2019 Military World Games this past October. Coincidentally, the games were hosted in the unluckiest of places; Wuhan, China.
Somehow, out of this odd set of circumstances, online conspiracy theorists have singled Benassi out from the hundreds of other US military competitors that were in Wuhan last fall as coronavirus patient zero. Neither Benassi nor her family have ever tested positive for COVID-19.
“It’s like waking up from a bad dream and going into a nightmare day after day,” Benassi told CNN.
The conspiracy originated from a YouTube channel run by George Webb, whose claims often go without any substantial claims to verify their truthfulness. Webb’s channel has almost 100 thousand subscribers. The basis of Webb’s theory is that the coronavirus was created by the US military and distributed within China as a biological weapon, via a secret military operation. And in a video, Webb claimed that it was Benassi who brought coronavirus to China.
It seems that Webb seized upon Benassi, out of all the US military athletes that went to Wuhan last year, due to an injury she suffered in an accident on the final lap of her race. She finished the race anyway, but she sustained a fractured rib and a concussion, and was treated for her injuries in Wuhan.
This is thin evidence on which to base a massive conspiracy theory with worldwide implications, but Webb has a history of this sort of thing, having previously been heavily involved in amplifying a false rumor of a dirty bomb coming into South Carolina’s Port of Charleston. No bomb ever materialized, but the port was shut down for a time as a result of his widely publicized conjectures.
Webb engaged in a bit of conjecture in his accusation of Maatje Benassi as well, stating that she was related to Italian DJ Benny Benassi, best known for his 2002 hit “Satisfaction.” Not only is Benny Benassi not related to Maatje Benassi or her husband Matt, he has never met either of them; he told CNN that in Italy, Benassi is “a very common last name.”
After Webb falsely accused Benassi of causing the pandemic, many took to comment sections calling for punishment of her and her husband, sometimes going as far as to call for their deaths. Comments such as “These people will get a bullet to the skull,” along with the fact that much of their private information has been publicly posted online, has left Benassi and her family fearing for their lives.
“It’s unreal. The danger [Webb] put us in,” said Benassi.
Since the videos have been uploaded, Benassi and her husband have pursued ways to get them taken down. At first they were successful, but once something is uploaded online, it is almost impossible to fully remove. Videos have been reposted to multiple sites across the internet, including sites run by the Chinese Communist Party media. At least one member of the Chinese government has promoted the idea that the US military brought the coronavirus to China — again, despite the absence of any evidence.
While the Benassis can do their best to have the videos taken down due to misinformation, Matt says they must pursue each individual upload individually, further adding to the extreme effort required to remove them. Even worse, there is very little legal action available to Benassi’s family against George Webb.
“You quickly realize that for folks like us, it’s just too expensive to litigate something like this,” Matt Benassi told CNN. “We get no recourse from law enforcement. We get no recourse from the courts.”
In the weeks since CNN broke this story, Webb has retracted his accusation of Benassi.
“I am officially retracting my earlier reporting that Maatje Benassi tested positive for CoronaVirus,” Webb wrote in the description of one video. “I realize now I was being fed bad information to entrap me…”
While Webb’s retraction may work to undo some of the damage dealt to the Benassis, much of the misinformation he spread against them is still widely available online. And with active promotion of the conspiracy theory happening everywhere from Facebook groups to Chinese media, it’s unlikely to go away anytime soon.
Top Photo: Sgt. Maatje Benassi competing in the 2013 CISM World Military Cycling Championship in Leopoldsburg, Belgium. Photo by Debra Ponzio. Marilyn Drew Necci contributed to this report.