Jakarta. The death of a young man from a harrowing smoking-related illness this week has sent ripples around Indonesia’s social media scene and renewed activists’ commitment to push the government for stronger tobacco controls.
Robby Indra Wahyuda, a 27-year-old photographer and singer in a band from Samarinda, East Kalimantan, died on Tuesday from cancer of the larynx. News of his death spread quickly on the social networking sites Facebook and Path, with thousands of people posting their condolences on Robby’s wall and sharing the story of his passing through their own social media feeds.
Robby, a heavy smoker since elementary school, was diagnosed with cancer and had to undergo a series of surgeries to remove his larynx. He lost his voice and his health deteriorated quickly after the surgery, which also left him with a gaping hole in his throat.
But instead of succumbing to frustration at being sick, Robby decided to share his story to inspire others to quit smoking and to advocate the government to come up with better regulations to fight the scourge of Indonesia’s high smoking prevalence.
A Facebook post by Robby showed a picture of himself in hospital, in which the hole in his throat can be seen. He also wrote to his Facebook friends to learn from his mistakes as a heavy smoker and to quit the habit before it was too late.
“I want to show off, now I have a hole in my neck, just like the image on that cigarette pack,” he wrote. “I’m also a mute now, please keep on smoking and be like me, we can start a mute community.”
Robby also regularly updated people on his latest condition as well as shared his frustration at battling the cancer.
His posts went viral as thousands of people shared his story, tagging their own friends and family who were still smoking, in the hope that Robby’s story could motivate them to quit. In a short time, Robby’s gained more than 20,000 Facebook friends, and dozens of mainstream media outlets picked up his story.
Robby also started a petition on Change.org to demand the government immediately accede to the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC). The petition has been signed by more than 18,000 people.
Making an impact
“I followed Robby’s journey months ago before he died, because my husband is a smoker,” a Facebook user, Tika Widyaningtyas, told the Jakarta Globe on Thursday.
“I could tell from his writings that Robby was very frustrated at not being able to speak; people relate to that kind of real emotion.”
Tika has still not been able to convince her husband to quit smoking, but Robby’s story has inspired many others to at least try to quit.
“Soon after Robby shared his story on Facebook, so many people contacted him privately though his inbox and told him they also suffered from the same thing but were too ashamed to say it in public,” said Valentina Sri Wijiyati, one of Robby’s real-life friends.
Valentina, a tobacco-control activist from the NGO Jogja Healthy Without Tobacco (JSTT), said Robby realized that he might not live long because of his disease.
“He said even if his life was short he wanted it to be useful. He knew there were many tobacco victims who were unwilling to share their story and that’s why he decided to share his,” she said.
Valentina said Robby’s decision to share his story through social media made a real difference.
“Social media is still viewed as an insignificant medium for tobacco-control campaigning, even though it’s actually very powerful,” she said.
Fuad Baradja, the head of public education at the Indonesian Smoking Control Foundation (LM3), said Indonesian tobacco-control activists should start looking more seriously into leveraging social media as a powerful campaign tool.
“I gave up hoping the government would do something, but I hope the public will be motivated by a real story like Robby’s,” he said.
In a country where 69 million people use Facebook and 20 million have access to Twitter, social media could generate massive awareness of the problem if managed properly, Fuad said.
“In this case, social media could generate people power for a public-interest cause. It is extremely powerful, but we need to have an array of professionals to manage the campaign properly,” he said.
Fuad said solid data about tobacco harmful effects should be collected and shared through social media to fight the tobacco industry’s powerful influence and organized mass media campaign.
He said what made Robby’s story get across to so many people was because Robby had equipped himself with sufficient information about the smoking epidemic in Indonesia. With that knowledge, he was able to argue against his critics on Facebook who sprang to the defense of the tobacco industry, Fuad said.
Tika said Robby’s story resonated strongly with the public because his emotions were real and his insights personal.
“It was powerful because it was a real story on social media and the narration was conveyed by the patient directly, not drafted by an advertising agency,” she said.
Messages of hope
Award-winning Canadian filmmaker and tobacco-control activist Daniel Ziv said social media could be more powerful in fighting the cigarette scourge in Indonesia, where two out of every three adult males smoke.
“Social media is possibly the most powerful communication platform in Indonesia today,” Ziv said.
"For better or worse, social media has become the primary lens through which many Indonesians interact, view their country and view the world. Because it’s personal and interactive in nature, rather than impersonal and one-way like traditional media, content absorbed from social media ‘friends’ is far more impactful.”
Public service messages about the dangers of smoking, usually produced by the government, often feel detached, formal, or too “informational” to have a meaningful impact, Ziv said.
He said the government must come up with a more creative campaign to engage the public and ensure the message gets across.
“Messages of fear must be replaced by messages of hope. Nearly everyone knows there’s a health risk, but people don’t like to feel guilty, and respond better to potential solutions than to threats,” he said.
“A smart campaign would show people that it’s possible, and offer guidance.”
Ziv said the campaign to fight smoking must be able to sensitize people to its dangers and make it “uncool.”
“For decades, cigarettes have been glamorized as something trendy, energetic, young, even natural. Which of course is completely obscene, because all they do is slow us down, dirty our lungs, damage our hearts and kill us,” he said.
To counter the well-funded, glitzy cigarette ads that the government continues to allow on television, tobacco-control activists should come up with a campaign featuring celebrities demonstrating that not smoking is the cooler option, Ziv suggested.
Ziv, who has more than 83,000 followers on Twitter, said he was committed to using his social media clout to persuade people to quit smoking by focusing on what they can gain rather than what they stand to lose.
“The most popular tweet was an infographic called ‘What happens when a smoker quits,’ that illustrated the quick health gains starting from the first days after you stop smoking. The tweet was shared thousands of times, often by people who sent it to loved ones,” he said.