Maatje Benassi, a US Army reservist and mother of two, has become the target of conspiracy theorists who falsely place her at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, saying she brought the disease to China.

The false claims are spreading across YouTube every day, so far racking up hundreds of thousands of apparent views, and have been embraced by Chinese Communist Party media. Despite never having tested positive for the coronavirus or experienced symptoms, Benassi and her husband are now subjects of discussion on Chinese social media about the outbreak, including among accounts that are known drivers of large-scale coordinated activities by their followers.

The claims have turned their lives upside down. The couple say their home address has been posted online and that, before they shut down their accounts, their social media inboxes were overrun with messages from believers of the conspiracy.

“It’s like waking up from a bad dream going into a nightmare day after day,” Maatje Benassi told CNN Business in an exclusive interview, the first time she has spoken publicly since being smeared online.
Maatje Benassi at her home on Wednesday, April 22. She said the experience is "like waking up from a bad dream going into a nightmare day after day." (Heather Fulbright / CNN)