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Conspiracy theorists said she was coronavirus patient zero. Her life became a 'nightmare'.

If you Google the name ‘Maatje Benassi’, you’ll find entry after entry containing the same phrase: coronavirus patient zero.

The mother of two and United States Army reservist has unwittingly found herself at the centre of a major COVID-19 conspiracy theory.

Posts on Reddit, YouTube, social media and a host of other sites, falsely accuse Benassi starting the pandemic, which has so far infected more than 2.8 million people worldwide.

Why? Ask a vlogger named George Webb.

In a video posted to his YouTube channel (to which he has 98,000 subscribers), Webb alleged — without any concrete evidence — that Benassi took the virus to Wuhan when she attended the World Military Games there in October 2019.

His accusation is rooted in a baseless conspiracy theory that the U.S. military manufactured and deliberately released the novel coronavirus into China to cripple its economy.

There is currently no conclusive evidence about the origins of the novel coronavirus, which was first detected among workers and shoppers at a wet market in Wuhan in late 2019.

But as Professor Nigel McMillan, Director in Infectious Diseases and Immunology at Menzies Health Institute Queensland said, “All evidence so far points to the fact the COVID-19 virus [SARS-CoV-2] is naturally derived and not man-made.”

‘A nightmare, day after day.’

Benassi, a civilian security officer at the U.S. Army’s Fort Belvoir in Virginia, did compete in a cycling event at the games in Wuhan, but told CNN Business she has never been diagnosed with COVID-19 or experienced any symptoms.

Since Webb plucked her name from among the American competitors, his utterly false allegations have spread across YouTube, forums and social media, and have even been amplified by state-run media in China.

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George Webb. Image: YouTube.

Benassi told CNN that as the rumour spread, she was hounded on social media to the point she had to close her accounts, her address was also reportedly shared online, and there were comments on some videos questioning whether she should be killed.

While YouTube has removed Webb's original video, it has sprung up on other accounts. Given she can't afford to launch civil action, there's little more that Benassi can do.

"It's like waking up from a bad dream going into a nightmare, day after day," she told the outlet.

"I want everybody to stop harassing me, because this is cyberbullying to me, and it's gone way out of hand."

The conspiracy.

While Webb appears to be the first to drag an individual into the 'U.S. bioweapon' narrative, the theory itself is not a new one.

It's been circulating widely via social and traditional media over the past few months and, according to VICE, is particularly popular in China.

In fact, some have speculated that the narrative is being fuelled by Chinese authorities in an effort to deflect scrutiny over the pandemic elsewhere.

In early March, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian certainly put his Government's weight behind the idea, when he tweeted: "It might be U.S. army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan. Be transparent! Make public your data! US owe us an explanation!"

His message was retweeted by at least a dozen diplomatic accounts and was trumpeted through multiple articles in China’s state-run media outlets.

As were George Webb's claims.

In an article published last month, Chinese newspaper The Global Times presented cited Webb as an 'investigative journalist' and presented his allegations about Maatje Benassi.

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While the outlet noted his allegations were "without strong evidence", it quoted calls for U.S. authorities to release health information about the athletes who had travelled to Wuhan.

'They call it U.S.A. virus.'

Due to tightly controlled media, limited access to foreign websites and decades of state-fuelled anti-U.S. sentiment, the conspiracy reportedly took hold with relative ease.

As one Chinese-American told VICE, “Sadly most Chinese people really believe the U.S. brought the virus to China and they call it ‘U.S.A. virus... The CCP’s anti-American propaganda is very successful.”

But the use of Twitter by Chinese officials to parrot the message is particularly telling, given Twitter is blocked under the country's strict internet censorship regime.

According to foreign policy group, Alliance for Securing Democracy, the number of Twitter accounts opened by Chinese embassies, consulates and ambassadors has increased by more than 250 per cent since March 2019, which was when the anti-government protests erupted in Hong Kong.

This increase suggests Chinese officials are seeking to have more influence over their narrative abroad, too.

Perhaps Webb's claims and all those entries for the name 'Maatje Benassi' indicate it may be working.

After all, there are few environments riper for a conspiracy theory to bite than a global pandemic; deadly, invisible, fast-moving threat meets people searching desperately for answers.

Even with relatively free access to media and information, several false claims about the origins of COVID-19 have emerged in other Pacific nations in recent weeks — from 5G technology making us vulnerable, to the pharmaceutical industry looking for vaccine profits. Same goes for possible treatments. Think President Donald Trump's speculation about injecting disinfectant into COVID-19 patients, which saw a spike in queries about the substance to poison control hotlines in several U.S. cities.

As Nicolas Guilhot, Senior Research Associate at the French Centre national de la recherche scientifique, explained via The Conversation, "Self-isolation and quarantine epitomise the idea of being removed from the world and any sense of community.

"In these conditions, it is easy to succumb to paranoia, especially if it is stirred up by cynical and reactionary politicians."

Whatever the source, it's clear there is a dangerous information — or misinformation — war being waged in the midst of this pandemic. And innocent people are being caught in the crossfire.

The current situation around COVID-19 might be making you feel scared or uncertain. It's okay to feel this way, but it's also important to learn how to manage feelings of anxiety during this time. To download the free PDF: Anxiety & Coronavirus - How to Manage Feelings of Anxiety click here.

Feature image: CNN.

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