'It's like waking up from a bad dream': Coronavirus 'patient zero' conspiracy target breaks silence

US soldier describes 'nightmare' of finding herself at centre of state-sponsored misinformation campaign

Justin Vallejo
New York
Tuesday 28 April 2020 00:08
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Maatje Benassi on being the target of conspiracy theorists who blame her for coronavirus

The so-called "patient zero" at the centre of coronavirus conspiracy theories and Chinese state-sponsored misinformation campaigns has spoken out for the first time.

US Army Reservist Maatje Benassi and husband, retired Air Force officer Matt Benassi, told CNN Business they feared that claims of their involvement in the spread of the virus could turn them into victims of another Pizzagate, a fringe conspiracy that led to a man shooting up a Washington DC pizzeria.

"It's like waking up from a bad dream going into a nightmare day after day," Ms Benassi said.

"I know it [will] never be the same. Every time you're going to Google my name, it will pop up as patient zero."

Army Sergeant 1st Class Benassi is a noncommissioned officer from the 312th Observer-Controller-Trainer unit at Fort Meade, Maryland, while Mr Benassi is a retired Air Force officer and is employed by the Air Force at the Pentagon.

Ms Benassi competed in the women's 50-mile road race during the seventh CISM World Military Games on Wuhan East Lake in October 2019; a connection that has been used by the Chinese Communist Party to support their allegation that the virus originated in the US and was released in China by the US Army.

Chinese Communist Party Foreign Ministry spokesman, Lijian Zhao, falsely stated in a tweet that Centres For Disease Control's Robert Redfield was "arrested" before Mr Zhao floated the Benassi conspiracy theory to his 600,000 followers.

"When did Patient Zero appear in the United States? How many people are infected? What is the name of the hospital?" Mr Zhao said in a follow-up the tweet. "It may be that the US military brought the epidemic to Wuhan."

US Defence Secretary Mark Esper said it was "completely ridiculous and it's irresponsible" for someone speaking on behalf of the Chinese government to promote such a claim.

Despite the Trump administration's requests of big tech to stomp out misinformation and conspiracy theories related to coronavirus, Twitter has refused to remove the communist government's tweet.

"With a critical mass of expert organisations, official government accounts, health professionals, and epidemiologists on Twitter, our goal is to elevate and amplify authoritative health information on our service," Twitter spokesman Trenton Kennedy said in a statement.

Such official government accounts like those of Mr Zhao have been amplifying the hypothesis popularised by conspiracy theorist George Webb, 59. He connects Mr and Ms Benassi, along with Italian DJ Benny Benassi, in a Benassi plot to spread the virus.

The claims have been repeated by Chinese state-sponsored media in what has been called an apparent disinformation campaign to deflect global criticism for the coronavirus pandemic away from China and towards the US.

The Global Times, an English-language media arm of the Chinese Communist Party, referenced Mr Webb's claims when calling on the US government to release the medical records of Ms Benassi and all the members of the American team that competed in Wuhan "to end the conjecture about US military personnel bringing Covid-19 to China."

The People's Daily China, meanwhile, claimed "racism and conspiracy" when Donald Trump called coronavirus the "Chinese virus."

"His claim triggered many ugly comments full of racism and conspiracy, but also an avalanche of criticism from Americans and people from around the world who agreed that it is wrong for the US president to associate a group of people with a virus, something that poses a threat to all people, regardless of nationality," they posted to Facebook.

As the global coronavirus death toll on Monday passed 200,000 and neared almost three million infected, the Communist Party of China doubled-down on its official claims that China is the biggest victim of coronavirus disinformation.

China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang on Monday Tweeted that the peddling of disinformation should be "rejected by all".

He said that China, meanwhile, "has earned applause from the international community for its responsibility and contribution" since the Covid-19 outbreak.

While Mr Benassi has complained repeatedly to YouTube, which has removed some but not all of the videos, it was difficult to hold Mr Webb accountable when the videos are uploaded to Chinese platforms WeChat, Weibo, and Xigua Video and translated to Mandarin.

"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," Mr Benassi said.

"We talked to an attorney. You quickly realise 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."

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