To the casual observer it was just another Facebook page dispensing inspirational messages — and the occasional threat — to its 18,000 followers. In fact “Honour and Dignity”, was a social media branding exercise for an Italian mafia boss whose frequent posts came to an abrupt end after he was sentenced to 30 years in prison.
Before his incarceration in 2017, Vincenzo Torcasio, a boss of a clan of the Calabrian ’Ndrangheta, Italy’s most powerful mafia, spent five years building up a sizeable online following. His digital offering provided an unlikely mix of kitsch images of roses and hearts, quotes from the writer Paulo Coelho, and occasional nuggets of grizzled gangster wisdom.
In other posts Mr Torcasio, from the southern Italian city of Lamezia Terme in Calabria, attacked the Italian state’s tough anti-mafia prison rules. Pictures of large sums of money were accompanied by the words: “when this is involved, you can’t 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 generally maintain a low public profile to avoid attention from the authorities, have embraced a digital strategy to grow their criminal brands.
“The mafia has always been in the business of brand building, and here the medium has changed, but the aims have not,” said Federico Varese, an expert on organised crime at the University of Oxford.
“Powerful criminal brands reduce the need to use violence, as if you borrow money from me and know I am in the mafia, you already know I am 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 profiles in the pre-digital age. New York mobster John Gotti, known as the dapper don, famously courted publicity and media attention in the 1980s. But while building a high-profile reputation can be good for business it presents multiple pitfalls.
“If you become too famous, that is not a good strategy,” said Mr Varese. “If you become a celebrity, that attracts attention from the police. Gotti made himself a target.”
Mr Torcasio’s “Honour and Dignity” Facebook page, which has been inactive since 2017 but remains online, does not include any direct promotion of criminal activity. Instead many of the posts focus on the risk of betrayal by those close to you, the need to have “cold blood” and to pay respect to well-known Italian organised crime bosses from the past, such as the famous Neapolitan Camorra boss Raffaele Cutolo.
Anna Sergi, a criminologist at the University of Essex in the UK, said crime bosses and their family members were using social media in this way to promote and defend what they believe are laudable cultural values.
“The mafia identity is not always the same as the activities of the organisation,” she said. “Those who belong to the clans often see it as a lifestyle and way of being, with lots of good in it. For these people it is natural from a criminological perspective to defend your identity and values at a time when they are attacked by the state.”
In its forays into social media, the mafia has embraced popular culture from outside Italy. Last year, in an example of cross-pollination between the Italian mafia and digital youth culture, a group of teenagers, some related to well established ’Ndrangheta crime families, posted a rap video on YouTube in the style of “trap”, a hip hop sub-genre originating from Atlanta, Georgia, that has become popular around the world.
The video by Glock 21 filmed in the rundown Calabrian town of Rosarno has attracted 267,000 views and features youths posing with automatic weapons, flashy jewellery and sports cars. There is no evidence that anyone in the video is in the mafia themselves.
Mr Varese said such videos showed that relatives of mafia members were influenced by the same online youth cultures as other teenagers and use social media in the same way as young people elsewhere.
“These 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 on social media about themselves that is not criminal, and can’t be used in court.”
As with all young social media users, however, there was the risk of an ill-advised post coming back to haunt them later in life. “Once you start using social media it can be used against you,” Mr Varese said. “It is like someone who posts pictures of themselves at party when they are 18 and then it causes them problems when they are 30.”
It is a risk Mr Torcasio warned his online followers about. “If the past comes back to find you try and avoid it,” he wrote in one of his Facebook aphorisms. “There is no room for those who have turned their backs on you”.