An Army reservist recently found herself at the center of the coronavirus conspiracy mill after she participated in the 2019 Military World Games in Wuhan, China, last fall.
Sgt. 1st Class Maatje Benassi competed in cycling for the U.S. team during the October games, placing 8th in the 50-mile race despite suffering bruised ribs and a cracked helmet after crashing in the final stretch.
But the games — designed to promote peace between militaries through friendly sporting events — later became the target of conspiracies centering around the presence of U.S. troops in Wuhan, the sprawling central Chinese city where the coronavirus outbreak began months later.
Benassi, who was featured by DoD media after the race, was singled out as a potential “patient zero” for the virus in a YouTube video posted this March by George Webb, a man known for pushing conspiracies to his 98,000 subscribers. The allegations eventually spread to Global Times, an offshoot of the People’s Daily, a media organ of the Chinese Communist Party.
Benassi and her husband, who is a retired Air Force officer and current Pentagon employee, have gradually become the targets of conspiracy theorists, the couple told CNN this week.
“The Army is providing support to help Sgt. 1st Class Benassi with the public attention," said Army spokeswoman Col. Sunset R. Belinsky in a statement to Army Times. "As a matter of policy, the Army would neither confirm nor deny any safety or security measures taken on behalf of an individual; however, as we would with any soldier, the Army will work with the appropriate authorities to ensure that she and her family are properly protected.”
The couple spoke with CNN about the harassment they’ve faced, saying their home address was shared online and they shut down their social media presence after being inundated with messages from conspiracy theorists.
“It’s like waking up from a bad dream going into a nightmare day after day,” said Benassi, who works as a civilian security officer at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. “I want everybody to stop harassing me, because this is cyberbullying to me and it’s gone way out of hand."
Benassi and her husband have never had the coronavirus. And though that element of the conspiracy was pushed most prominently on YouTube, the idea that U.S. service members brought the virus to Wuhan has also been echoed by Chinese officials.
In mid-March, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lijian Zhao made headlines when he said that perhaps it was the “U.S. Army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan" over Twitter, a social media platform blocked in China. The tweet received more than 15,000 likes and 7,700 shares, including re-tweets by Chinese diplomatic accounts.
In written responses to Senate Armed Services Committee questions this month, Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville flatly denied that there was any connection between the virus and his forces.
“There is no logical response to such an irrational accusation," he said.
Though the Pentagon has made an effort to dispel misleading narratives related to the pandemic, including setting up a webpage entitled “Coronavirus: Rumor Control,” its ability to respond to disinformation has been periodically criticized by experts.
Doctrinal confusion and cultural dysfunction related to information and cyber operations is still present in the Defense Department, Herb Lin, a cyber policy scholar at Stanford University, wrote in a March 27 article for Lawfare. Those problems may be an outgrowth of the Pentagon’s “pecking order,” which prioritizes combat careerfields over those like psychological operations, as well as the military’s sensitivity to public perceptions of terms like “PSYOP.”
Some on the Senate Armed Services Committee appeared sensitive to the mission, as well. In questions to the Army chief of staff published this month, one senator asked whether overtly announcing the Army’s move towards information warfare could unintentionally escalate those attacks against non-military targets in the United States.
“I do not," McConville said. “Russia and China are already contesting international norms and U.S. interests in cyberspace and the information environment. ... Stating our intent to develop this capability establishes a check on adversaries’ bold use of information against military and non-military targets."
Kyle Rempfer is an editor and reporter whose investigations have covered combat operations, criminal cases, foreign military assistance and training accidents. Before entering journalism, Kyle served in U.S. Air Force Special Tactics and deployed in 2014 to Paktika Province, Afghanistan, and Baghdad, Iraq.