On 12 February this year, HOPE not hate revealed the existence of a huge and mysterious social media network that was targeting QAnon conspiracy followers via the Telegram messaging app.
The so-called Sabmyk Network, which now has over one million subscribers across 136 channels in English, German, Japanese and Korean, posts a constant stream of QAnon content copied from other sources, interspersing it with posts about a previously unknown pseudo-religious narrative: the “Sword of Shawunawaz”, the “Atmumra Dynasty” and a Messianic figure called “Sabmyk, the Orion King”.
The network is worrying on multiple levels. It had amassed a huge audience over the course of just a few weeks, adding new channels and tens of thousands of followers on a daily basis. The largest channel in the network, the Great Awakening Channel, has over 134,000 subscribers and posts shared across the network regularly receive over 200,000 views.
Despite their near-identical content – each shares almost every post from the others – many of the channels are also deceptively branded to target different countries and demographics. The vast majority have names and profile images that identify them as QAnon-based, but the first channel to catch our attention was named and branded to resemble the anti-Muslim group Britain First, while others targeted evangelical Christians or UFO enthusiasts.
Alongside the anti-vaccine, COVID-denial and antisemitic conspiracy theories that are sadly ubiquitous on regular QAnon social media, the Sabmyk mythology promoted by these channels appears to be entirely new, leaving significant questions about the purpose behind its creation.
Our initial reporting on the topic drew an angry response from a channel in the network, which lambasted HOPE not hate as a “dirty propaganda machine” and suggested that our investigation was ordered by George Soros, the billionaire philanthropist who serves as a hate-figure for QAnon and the wider far right. As one post said:
The toxic content, unknown ideology, calculated and deceptive marketing and huge audience amassed by this network made it vital to unmask the person or persons behind it, to better understand their intentions.
Now HOPE not hate can reveal that the person behind this operation is the German artist and photographer Sebastian Bieniek, an obsessive self-publicist with a long history of social media manipulation.
The mythology behind the Sabmyk element of the network had been seeded on social media over the course of 2020, supposedly the work of a 55-year-old female Iranian artist living in Germany called “Ameli Achaemenes”. A Facebook profile in her name was set up in 2018, followed in 2020 by a string of websites and Facebook pages relating to aspects of the Sabmyk mythology: the so-called “Atmumra Dynasty”, the “Sword of Shawunawaz”, etc. The only apparent photo of Achaemenes showed what appeared to be a woman with her face covered by a niqab.
But further research revealed that Achaemenes was herself a fictional creation, one of a dizzying array of false identities and social media accounts created by Sebastian Bieniek over the course of more than a decade. Another of his characters that we discovered in the course of this investigation was “Vincent Van Volkmer”, supposedly an 87-year-old artist who attends exhibitions and anti-lockdown protests dressed as a bee, complete with painted latex face mask to conceal his identity.
Achamenes and Van Volkmer were two of at least four fictional artists invented by Bieniek; the two others, “Arthur Sosna” and “Elias Maria Reti”, also have multiple social media accounts and fictional biographies but seemingly do not appear anywhere in person. The amount of work that has gone into creating all four characters is impressive, with glossy well-produced websites, detailed biographies and a distinct artistic style for each. Bieniek sells artworks under all four names through a string of Ebay accounts, a trade which appears to be fairly lucrative: the six accounts we have identified have made sales totalling €24,000 in the past three months alone.
Yet even this is not the full extent of Bienek’s strange obsession for deceptive roleplay. Along with dozens of social media accounts and websites for his characters, Bieniek has created countless false identities to promote his own career as a painter, photographer and performance artist.
His German Wikipedia page has been deleted at least four times, most recently in January 2021, and an investigation by Wiki editors in 2019 concluded that Bieniek had used at least 30 fake ‘sockpuppet’ identities to create and edit pages about himself in 44 different languages over the previous decade. Notably, those same accounts had also been used to create and edit a Wikipedia page for one of his artist alter egos, “Elias Maria Reti”.
But it is Facebook where Bieniek achieved his earliest and greatest success in viral marketing. His main page has an impressive 430,000 likes, a number which dwarfs that of many genuinely acclaimed artists on the platform. This too was reached by deceptive means: in 2011 Bieniek wrote a book called RealFake that detailed his campaign to deceptively promote his own work.
A review of the book said it revealed how Bieniek had:
It is hard to know exactly where Bieniek’s artistic expression ends and his obsessive egotism begins. His performance art plays up to a boastful public persona, such as a video in which he stares into the camera while repeating the phrase “I am the winner” over and over. Yet his decade-long anonymous pursuit of a Wikipedia presence appears to be less of a performance and more a reflection of his deep-seated desire for attention and recognition.
It is clear, however, that the mythology he originally invented as part of the backstory for his “Ameli Achaemenes” character has developed into a far more sinister project, one for which the endgame is unclear. In recent weeks the channels have made a series of posts detailing the “Signs of Sabmyk”, the means by which believers will be able to identify the anointed Messiah of this pseudo-religion.
One such post claimed that Sabmyk would have “17 v-shaped scars” on his arm, the result of a “prophetic ceremony at the age of 24”. In a now-deleted section of Bieniek’s website, the origin of this cryptic statement becomes clear: the “prophetic ceremony” in question is a gruesome art exhibit that Bieniek put on in 1999 called ‘Hand Without A Body’, which involved the then-24 year old artist cutting v-shaped wounds into his arm for 16 days in a row.
This discovery indicates that Bieniek (perhaps) sees himself in the role of the messianic Sabmyk, a worrying but perhaps predictable development given his track record. It is unclear what Bieniek’s long-term goals are for this project, and whether he believes any of the conspiracy theories and misinformation that he is pumping out to a million subscribers. Yet it is important to note that the QAnon movement itself might have begun in a similar fashion. The person who first posted as the eponymous “Q” has never been positively identified, but it seems likely that their original motivation was a desire for attention and personal entertainment, rather than a plot to create a globally influential conspiracy movement.
HOPE not hate will be providing the full list of Bieniek’s accounts to social media platforms and calling for them to be removed on the basis of inauthentic and coordinated platform manipulation. But the successes of his project to date is a chilling reminder of the opportunities for deception and manipulation that exist on social media, particularly the unregulated badlands of alt-tech platforms like Telegram.