Can't Handle the Truth

Nope, Johannes Marliem Isn't Tweeting From Beyond the Grave

After a slow week of fake news, Indonesia's hoaxers back with one of the hardest hoaxes to crack yet.

by Ardyan M. Erlangga
20 August 2017, 9:28am

Illustration by Ilham Kurniawan

Welcome to Can't Handle the Truth , VICE Indonesia's summary of the most talked about hoaxes and fake news circulating this week.

Last week's edition of Can't Handle The Truth was all about how it was getting harder and harder to find a good hoax these days. A lot of the fake news circulating one week ago was so poorly constructed that the domestic media didn't even feel the need to try to verify whether the stories were true or not. So instead we made fun of the poor quality of the hoaxes and went to to cover some of the weirder stuff creeping around the edges of the internet instead.

Well, maybe the people behind those hoaxes read this column, because days later someone came up with one of the hardest hoaxes we've ever had to deal with here at VICE's Indonesia office: rumors about the death of Johannes Marliem, the Los Angeles-based key witness in what is shaping up to be one of Indonesia's biggest corruption cases to date. The internet was full of stories about the "ghost" or Marliem doing weird things—even tweeting.

Marliem's bizarre death managed to hold the country's attentions at a time when everything else was relatively quiet in the lead-up to independence day. Well, we still had the requisite failed terrorist attack, a high-profile embezzlement scandal, and what might be the worst welcome ever for a hugely popular K-pop singer at Soekarno-Hatta International Airport. But honestly, things were so nuts for a while there that this still feels like a slow news week.

So now since we know about the real news of the week, lets move onto the best of the fake.

MUI bans the raising of the Indonesian flag at mosques

This is a bit of a weird one. So three days before 17 August (Indonesia's independence proclamation day) this seemingly real-looking message from the Indonesian Council of Ulema (MUI) declaring that it was haram to raise the Merah Putih inside a mosque was circulating through our WhatsApp groups.

The reason? Apparently it's against the rules of Islam, according to verses in the Quran and Nabi Muhammad. Caretakers should only raise the national flag outside the the mosque, the MUI said. As expected, the internet was immediately up in arms. People wanted to know if this so-called caliphate ideology was seeping into the halls of the MUI.

But a few days ago, the MUI released an official statement that said the whole matter was a fake.

"The news is nothing but an act of defamation," Asrorun Niam, of the fatwa division of the MUI, told local media. "It's a planned attempt to degrade the MUI and disrupt the harmony of people in the midst of the independence celebrations.

I mean, really, this hoax was a no-brainer. Who the hell hoists an Indonesian flag inside a mosque? No one is that stupid. Even mosques inside government buildings don't do this. The whole matter upset Niam, who was angered by the use of the MUI's name to spread fake news.

"We want law enforcement to find and take legal steps against these hoax producers who might be threatening the unity of this country," he said.

Someone is mixing glass in with our salt

Indonesia is currently struggling with a salt scarcity. How the hell is Indonesia out of salt in the first place? I mean, can't you pull it out of the ocean? But anyway, the government said the shortages were only for industrial salt, not consumption salt. Not that this message did anything to calm people down.

In no time at all, fake stories warning that salt was being mixed with ground-up glass hit our WhatsApp groups. What does glass-infused salt look like? Apparently it's harder looking than regular old salt. The internet was quickly sent into a frenzy.

Thankfully, the Indonesia Salt Farmers' Association (APGRI) came to the rescue. Jakfar Sodikin, the director of APGRI, said the harder textured salt does not contain any glass. But how can they prove this? Well, simply grab a handful of salt and then drop some water into it. "Both local and imported salt will stay sticky in your hands after it's doused with water," Jakfar told local media.

Also salt also doesn't reflect the sun, duh. Next time you suspect there's glass in your salt, just hold it under the sun. If it doesn't reflect the sunlight, then it's not glass. You can also try to dissolve salt in water. If it all dissolves, then it's actually salt.

We did a test on six different salt brands," Hardaningsih, the head of the Food and Drug Monitoring Agency (BPOM) in Surabaya told local media. "All the salt dissolved perfectly in water. That means there were no glass particles in it."

The ghost of Johannes Marliem is on Twitter

There wasn't a bigger story out there last week than the alleged suicide of Johannes Marliem. The Indonesian businessman was found dead in his Los Angeles residence after a stand-off with police. US authorities initially ruled that Marliem died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

His death took everyone by surprise. He was the key witness in the Corruption Eradication Commission's (KPK) ongoing investigation into a truly massive graft scandal surrounding the government's e-KTP program. To date, the corruption case has cost the state at least Rp 2.3 trillion ($172 million USD) in losses.

Well, Marliem said that he had recordings of conversations between corrupt officials in the Ministry of Internal Affairs and his company PT Biomorf—which supplied the automated fingerprint identification systems used for the ministry's project.

Marliem was interviewed by the KPK twice before his death. So, of course, the rumors came quick. People thought Marliem was murdered. Then, someone noticed that Marliem's Twitter account tweeted a story about climate change on 11 August. Twitter started to freak out. @bang_Si0may replied "Is this you?" "How can a dead man tweet?" asked another.

Speculations quickly grew wilder. Some wondered whether Marliem was still alive. Others said that Marliem, and bunch of other dead people, were intelligent agents. In 24 hours, the tweet was deleted, but this only made people wonder even more.

Marliem didn't have that many followers in the first place. And all of his other social media accounts were silent. So what was going on here? KPK Commissioner Saut Situmorang said that the agency confirmed Marliem's death with US authorities. The Los Angeles coroner's office conducted an autopsy and confirmed that he had killed himself.

"It was certainly suicide," Saut said at a press conference on 17 August.

OK, so Marliem is officially dead. So what about his Twitter account? It was probably a bot. Marliem's tweets were often posted at specific hours, which means that it was unlikely the product of an actual person.

But IT expert Abimanyu Wahjoehidajat told VICE that while the tweet was likely a bot, the decision to delete it was probably the work of a real-life human.

"Most likely it's been hijacked because the last tweet is humane," Abimanyu told VICE. "The account could be managed by several people at once, who know his password."

The KPK, police, and Ministry of Foreign Affairs have all been silent on the matter. So while there is definitely no chance that a ghost is tweeting, we also have no idea who actually is handling this social media account. Like I said, this week is a hard one.

fake news
Johannes Marliem
e-KTP corruption case