A brigade of trolls is spreading conspiracy theories about a U.S. Army reservist, falsely claiming that she is "COVID-19 patient zero" and responsible for starting the coronavirus pandemic.
Maatje Benassi is a civilian security officer stationed at Fort Belvoir in Virginia. Since March she and her husband Matt, also a government employee at the military base, have been targeted in YouTube videos and social media posts that wrongly claim she contracted COVID-19 in October while competing in the Military World Games, which were hosted in Wuhan, China. Neither Benassi or her husband have tested positive for or experienced of COVID-19.
Hundreds of competitors participate in the Military World Games, a multi-sport competition like the Olympics which is held in a different city every four years. Why Benassi was singled out is unknown, but the harassment has changed her life. She told CNN that the trolling is incessant; conspiracy theory followers shared her home address and flooded her social media accounts with threats and menacing posts. "It's like waking up from a bad dream going into a nightmare day after day," she said.
Many of the videos targeting Benassi and her husband were viewed hundreds of thousands of times on YouTube after the conspiracy was amplified by Chinese diplomats and state-run media. In February, The Global Times, a site run by the Chinese Communist Party's People's Daily newspaper, alleged that coronavirus was brought to China from a U.S. military base during the World Games. A few weeks later, Lijian Zhou, a Chinese diplomat, in a tweet that speculated, "It might be US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan."
The use of state media to amplify online conspiracies is part of a broad strategy to deflect and reframe the coronavirus narrative away from China, said Priscilla Moriuchi, a senior researcher at Recorded Future, a cybersecurity firm that specializes in digital threat assessment. Moriuchi told CBS News that the coronavirus pandemic provided China with an opportunity to present a binary comparison between the Chinese government's response and the West's.
"China has leveraged its social media operations to conflate the speed and success of its response to the COVID-19 crisis, exaggerate its international aid efforts, shift the blame for the pandemic away from the Chinese government, and change the narrative from China as the source of the pandemic to China as a global leader in its response," Moriuchi said.
The strategic goal of Chinese leadership, said Moriuchi, is to counter a negative story about the country by using social media to elevate pro-China stories, attack enemies, and generate confusion by sharing conspiracy theories — including scapegoating victims like Benassi.
Starting in late January, data gathered from Western social media platforms by Recorded Future demonstrates a dramatic increase in COVID-19-related posts by Chinese accounts. In early January, Chinese accounts were posting fewer than 100 times per day. By February 10, the number of posts had spiked to over 3,500 per day. Between January and March, Chinese accounts created over 32,000 posts, nearly half of which mentioned "coronavirus" or "COVID-19" and portrayed China in a positive light.
According to the data gathered by Recorded Future, through most of January Chinese state-sponsored social media accounts shared positive stories indicating the country had controlled the virus' spread and that China was transparently collaborating with international health agencies like the WHO.
By mid-March, Chinese state-run social media tactics became more aggressive.
"China's engaged in a two-front strategy," Moriuchi said. "The first includes allowing state-run media to engage in a starkly more negative campaign around COVID-19 crisis than it has conducted before. Second is permitting a group of media-savvy diplomats to conduct a combative, truth-bending and misleading campaign on Western social media to shift the blame for the crisis away from China."
China doesn't need to control the conspiracy, explained Moriuchi, "They just need a conspiracy to exist."
Meanwhile, for victims like Maatje Benassi whose lives have been turned upside down by conspiracy theorists and a state-sponsored propaganda machine, there seems to be no end in sight.