The mysterious individual behind a new and rapidly growing online disinformation network targeting followers of QAnon, the far-right cult, can be revealed as a Berlin-based artist with a history of social media manipulation, a prominent anti-racism group claims.
Since Donald Trump left the White House, QAnon’s vast online community has been in a state of flux as it comes to terms with the reality that its conspiracy theories – such as the former US president being destined to defeat a cabal of Satan-worshipping paedophiles – amount to nothing.
That may explain why significant numbers have turned to a new far-right network, found mostly on the Telegram messaging app, that is growing quickly in the UK and globally and has amassed more than one million subscribers so far this year.
Called the Sabmyk Network, like QAnon it is a convoluted conspiracy theory that features fantastical elements and is headed by a mysterious messianic figure. Since its emergence there has been widespread speculation about who that figure might be. The person who first posted as “Q” has never been positively identified.
This week the British anti-fascist group Hope Not Hate will unmask Sabmyk’s leader, who it claims is 45-year-old German art dealer Sebastian Bieniek. It says Bieniek – who has not responded to questions from the Observer – has a history of creating online conspiracies and even wrote a book in 2011 called RealFake that detailed a campaign to deceptively promote his work.
But Hope Not Hate says the speed of Sabmyk’s growth serves as a warning of the opportunities for manipulation that exist on social media, particularly unregulated alt-tech platforms such as Telegram.
Gregory Davis of Hope Not Hate, which will publish its annual report into the far right on Monday, said: “His success in developing such a huge audience is a reminder that the QAnon template of anonymous online manipulation will continue to pose a threat in the years to come.”
Since 21 December last year, when Sabmyk was supposedly “awakened”, more than 136 channels in English, German, Japanese, Korean and Italian have sprung up, adding tens of thousands of followers on a daily basis.
Much of Sabmyk’s content is designed to appeal to QAnon followers; it features Covid mask scepticism, anti-vaccine conspiracies and false assertions that the 2020 US election was stolen from Trump.
Some is also designed to actively recruit Britons: one Sabmyk channel, the British Patriotic Party, uses the same branding as anti-Muslim group Britain First and posts about the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan.
Other channels are entitled London Post and Liverpool Times, as well as the Great Awakening UK, a reference to a well-known QAnon trope predicting a day of reckoning in which Trump would rise against his liberal enemies. Others include WWG1WGA, an acronym for the QAnon rallying call “where we go one, we go all.”
Among the clues used to identify Bieniek are posts saying that the messiah Sabmyk can be identified by specific marks on his body. One post claimed that Sabmyk would have “17 V-shaped scars” on his arm, the result of a “prophetic ceremony at the age of 24”.
Hope Not Hate has found a since-deleted section on Bieniek’s website recalling a 1999 art exhibit in which, aged 24, he cut V-shaped wounds into his arm for 16 days in a row.
Attempts to connect Sabmyk to Trump have been made, including a clip that splices together instances of the former president saying “17”, and a doctored image showing him with a Sabmyk pamphlet in his suit pocket.
Bieniek has created countless false identities, according to the Hope Not Hate investigation, to promote his career as an artist. The group also says his German Wikipedia page has been deleted at least four times, most recently in January.
A list of Bieniek’s accounts has been sent to platforms including Telegram with a call for them to be removed on the basis of “inauthentic and coordinated platform manipulation”. Telegram has been approached for comment.