To the casual observer, it was just another Facebook page delivering inspiring messages – and sometimes threats – to its 18,000 followers. In fact, “Honor and Dignity” was a social media branding exercise for an Italian mafia boss whose frequent posts ended abruptly after being sentenced to 30 years in prison.
Prior to his incarceration in 2017, Vincenzo Torcasio, head of a clan of Calabrian ‘Ndrangheta, Italy’s most powerful mafia, spent five years building up a significant online following. Its digital offering offered an unlikely mix of kitschy images of roses and hearts, quotes from writer Paulo Coelho, and the occasional nugget of grizzled gangster wisdom.
In other posts, Mr Torcasio, from the southern Italian town of Lamezia Terme, Calabria, attacked the Italian state’s tough anti-mafia prison rules. Pictures of large sums of money were accompanied by the words: “when it is at stake, you cannot trust anyone”.
For mafia experts, Mr. Torcasio’s decision to become a social media influencer is an example of how some Italian mafia bosses, who typically maintain a low public profile to avoid the attention of authorities, have adopted a digital strategy to develop their criminal brands.
“The mafia has always been in the business of brand building, and here the medium has changed, but the objectives have not changed,” said Federico Varese, an organized crime expert at the University of Oxford.
“Strong criminal brands reduce the need for violence, like if you borrow money from me and you know I’m in the Mafia, you already know I’m serious. This reputation helps me avoid violence, which attracts attention, so building it is a very rational investment.
There is a long history of crime bosses using the media to build their personal profile in the pre-digital age. New York gangster John Gotti, known as Dapper Don, wooed publicity and media attention in the 1980s. But while building a high profile reputation can be good for business, it presents many pitfalls.
“If you get too famous it’s not a good strategy,” Mr. Varese said. “If you become a celebrity, it gets the attention of the police. Gotti made himself a target.
Mr. Torcasio’s “Honor and Dignity” Facebook page, which has been inactive since 2017 but remains online, does not include any direct promotion of criminal activity. Instead, many articles focus on the risk of betraying your loved ones, the need to be “cool” and to pay homage to well-known Italian organized crime bosses of the past, such as the famous boss of the Neapolitan Camorra Raffaele Cutolo.
Anna Sergi, a criminologist at the University of Essex in the UK, said crime bosses and their family members are using social media in this way to promote and defend what they believe to be laudable cultural values .
“The Mafia identity is not always the same as the activities of the organization,” she said. “Those who belong to clans often see it as a lifestyle and a way of being, with a lot of good. For these people, it is criminologically natural to defend your identity and your values at a time when they are under attack by the state.
In its forays into social media, the Mafia has embraced popular culture outside of Italy. Last year, in an example of cross-pollination between Italian mafia and digital youth culture, a group of teenagers, some linked to well-established criminal families in Ndrangheta, posted a rap video to YouTube in the style of “trap,” a hip hop subgenre native to Atlanta, Georgia, which has become popular around the world.
The Glock 21 video filmed in the ramshackle Calabrian town of Rosarno drew 267,000 views and features young people posing with automatic weapons, flashy jewelry, and sports cars. There is no evidence that anyone in the video is themselves a member of the Mafia.
Mr Varese said the videos showed relatives of Mafia members being influenced by the same youth cultures online as other teens and using social media in the same way as young people elsewhere.
“They are people like us, they live in the same world as us,” he said. “They are part of the same culture we live in and most of the time they only reveal information about themselves on social media that is not criminal and cannot be used in court.”
However, as with all young social media users, there was a risk that an ill-advised post would come back to haunt them later in life. “Once you start using social media, it can be used against you,” Mr. Varese said. “It’s like someone posting pictures of themselves at a party when they’re 18 and giving them problems when they’re 30.”
This is a risk Mr. Torcasio has warned his online subscribers about. “If the past comes back to find you, try to avoid it,” he wrote in one of his Facebook aphorisms. “There is no place for those who have turned their backs on you.”