Social media has become globally indispensable for many for purposes of instant communication, news consumption and a sense of connection. But these platforms, and the internet more broadly, are also valuable tools for criminals. In Italy, young mafia members use them to exert ‘soft’ power and promote their criminal culture.

According to the Global Organized Crime Index 2021, Italy ranks first among countries in Europe for the presence of mafia-style groups, with a score of 9: a criminal actor indicator that significantly hikes the country’s overall criminality score. As the birthplace of the original mafia, Italy is home to some of the world’s most powerful organized crime groups, operating domestically and abroad.

However, anti–organized crime efforts have been on the political agenda for decades, strengthening Italy’s institutional and non-state response to the point where it is among the most sophisticated globally. The findings of the Index show that Italy is one of only nine countries in the world that has simultaneously high levels of criminality and robust frameworks and mechanisms in place to counter organized crime.

Over the years, law enforcement authorities have succeeded in prosecuting criminals through investigations conducted on social media platforms. Consequently, after a wave of arrests in the early 2010s, mafia groups such as Sicily’s Cosa Nostra progressively abandoned online communications and reverted to analogue methods or in-person meetings. However, other Italian criminal groups have continued to wield their influence, aided by emerging tech.

The app paranze

The Neapolitan Camorra is a case in point. A criminal network comprising hundreds of small cells, over the years this southern-based mafia organization has experienced a generational replacement. In the early 2010s, law enforcement authorities arrested dozens of older-generation Camorra bosses. With many of the senior cohorts now behind bars (or murdered), a younger cadre has risen to the fore. These are known as the paranze (‘small fish’, or baby gangsters, in mafia slang).

Many paranze carry guns by their teenage years (some illicitly imported from Western Balkan countries, which are awash with firearms, or stolen from private security guards), which allows them to exercise violent control of the Neapolitan urban territories. In addition, as opposed to the steep hierarchical reporting lines adopted by Cosa Nostra and the ‘Ndrangheta, the Camorra is characterized by a more horizontal, autonomous structure that results in constant violent clashes between factions for territorial control, a war that is now fought by the paranze. Whereas, in the past, one could become a mafia boss only after reaching a certain seniority milestone, the free-for-all of armed violence has allowed Camorra teenagers to garner power at a precociously young age.

This generational replacement has caused a sea change in the Naples underworld: older bosses operated discreetly and observed omertà, the mafia’s long-honoured code of silence, but greener gang members have taken to flaunting their exploits on social media. With guns in one hand and their devices in the other, the Camorra screenagers have acquired a more substantial social media presence than any other mafia-style group in Italy. ‘The old-school boss would think twice before putting his face on the internet. Now, however, when the clan leader is a 20-year-old with a lifestyle based on showing off … he will have a strong social impact,’ said Camorra expert Sergio Nazzaro.

A subculture composed of online imagery of gang tattoos, status symbols and violence pervades Naples; it forms the symbology of belonging and membership among Camorra affiliates while appealing through its semiology to a wider potential audience of low-skilled youth of the region. Online posts reinforce positive values, such as respect for family members, friendship and loyalty, but within a criminal context. Such propaganda appears to be an indirect effect of the Camorra’s online presence – rather than an orchestrated effort to promote the group – but the organization ultimately benefits from the engagement indirectly, both in terms of social acceptance and building a prospective recruitment pool.

Targeted responses

Globalization and, with it, mass communication have enabled social networks to become the leading platforms for group and social identity building. Understanding how affiliates of criminal groups interact with their friends, followers and members of the same social and cultural subgroup allows for assessing how solid and widespread a criminal culture in a given area might be.

Anti-mafia judge Giovanni Falcone argued that responses should address organized crime culture rather than target criminals. In this vein, investigating how criminal groups exploit technology for purposes such as recruitment can prove valuable for law enforcement agencies. In addition, analyzing the nature of criminals’ online interactions can help identify recurrent patterns across cultures. The kinds of social media posts used by the paranze do not differ significantly from online activities of young members of Mexican drug cartels, Brazilian gangs such as the Comando Vermelho or the Bloods gang in California, to name a few. Comparative analysis could therefore be productive in the response.

Italy has a long history of innovative responses to organized crime, thanks to its powerful judiciary and civil society organizations. But to further strengthen the country’s resilience to organized crime, anti-mafia actors would benefit from intercepting online criminal activities. Content creators, social media experts and influencers are essential stakeholders in intervening in those virtual communities where organized crime groups build ties among followers. Monitoring social networks where organized crime affiliates promote their subculture would also mean shifting the scope of intervention from punitive to preventative and its nature from incriminatory to educational.

This analysis is part of the GI-TOC’s series of articles delving into the results of the Global Organized Crime Index 2021. The series explores the Index’s findings and their effects on policymaking, anti-organized crime measures and analyses from a thematic or regional perspective.