The Italian Mafia Is on TikTok

And it's an insight into the changing world of organised crime.
September 21, 2020, 1:31pm
Mafia TikTok
Photos: Pixabaymartaposemuckel. Getty Images/Wattanaphob Kappago/ EyeEm. Adobe Stock/ink drop Collage by VICE.

In May this year, a video featuring Tommy Riccio’s song, “Sì Sto’ Carcerato” (“Yes, I’m Locked Up”) caught the attention of Italian TikTok. The lyrics describe the pain and suffering of being incarcerated, and the song is in Naples’ signature “neomelodic” style – a dramatic music genre sometimes accused of glorifying crime. But what made this video stand out is that it was shot inside a prison, later identified by penitentiary police as the high-security wing of Avellino prison, 50 kilometres east of Naples.

Avellino houses many criminals affiliated with the Camorra, the mafia chapter of the Campania region and its capital, Naples. Using a phone smuggled into their cell, the unidentified inmate’s TikTok went viral and was taken down, although it’s still on YouTube. It’s one of many instances of young Camorristi using TikTok to broadcast the mafia lifestyle and make themselves known to the higher-ups in the mafia world – a quasi audition for positions of power and leadership.

Coronavirus Has Only Made the Mafia Stronger

For a few months, VICE Italy kept an eye on the hashtags, songs and users related to a spike in these posts. We found that young mafiosi have been increasingly using TikTok over Facebook, and older clan members have followed suit.

The Camorra’s TikTok presence offers a window into the bigger changes to the structure of the mafia. To be clear, the Camorra doesn’t have a members list and there is no absolute way of proving these young TikTok-ers are card-carrying members. This is partly because in the past, being a Camorrista was something of a birthright, with new recruits coming from a few main families. But today, aspiring young mafiosi quickly gain fear and respect with displays of violence on the streets. These younger gangs also post about weapons and the spoils of the criminal lifestyle on social media, ditching the traditional mafia tendency to avoid the limelight.

The Camorra is a criminal organisation specialised in drug and human trafficking. It also makes money from illegal building contracts and garbage disposal in Campania. Organised in small hierarchical groups known as clans, it is traditionally led by families who control specific territories, with both the clans and the area they control taking the surname of their boss. Usually formed slowly and overtime, Camorra clans “are established when a family gains a position of authority in a certain trafficking sector,” said professor Luciano Brancaccio in an Italian book on the topic. To stay in control, she explained families need to manage violence “rationally”, by minimising killings and violent conflict to avoid locals turning against them.

Since the early 2000s, arrests of older clan leaders have increased, leading kids and young adults to take their place. It’s coincided with a surge in groups of teenagers, often from the same street or neighbourhood, meeting up to “fare i guai”, or cause trouble. These gangs have become known for random acts of violence. A 2019 report by the Italian Anti-Mafia Investigation Directorate (Direzione Investigativa Antimafia) labelled the gangs as the “Camorra academy”, for acting as an effective training ground and selection pool for future leaders. The report also highlighted that many of these kids have no familial ties to the mafia, but “act with the same violence”.

Many of the young Camorristi’s TikToks show them bragging about weapons, tattoos, cars, motorbikes and other luxury items to neomelodic or traplodic (a fusion of trap and neomelodic) tunes in local dialect. The most popular track, “Paradies Rmx” by Bl4ir, is about growing up in a tough neighbourhood. The catchy refrain goes, “If the guards drive by / give me a warning”.

None of the videos explicitly show crimes being committed. But the recurring themes, hashtags and songs imply a proud affiliation with organised crime. “Better to die than to betray,” reads the caption over a video of what appears to be a gang of young Camorristi. In another, a boy talks about his “brother” in jail, writing: “Prison can’t stop him”, along with the chain and black heart emojis. The hashtag: “paranza” or “baby gang” is used in many TikToks that show teens forming scooter motorcades or posing together.

Some of their most common emojis are lions (as a symbol of strength and aggression), guns and men holding hands as a symbol of brotherhood. The eyes emoji is also popular, representing the Neapolitan saying, “He who knows the game will stay quiet”, or the code of silence followed by gang members and people living in mafia-controlled areas. Other TikToks are about life in and outside of prison. In one, someone celebrates a friend just released from prison, describing him as the ruler of the piazza (square) – slang for a spot where people deal drugs.

The 2019 report also highlighted how traditional clans have been trying to tap into the potential of the young gangs by handing over power and territory, while avoiding any violence that could damage their image. In 2015, a 19-year-old gang leader Emanuele Sibillo rebelled against a local Camorra boss and was murdered. The case attracted negative attention, and the clans have since been using social media to rehabilitate their image, with efforts now focussed on TikTok.

The most blatant example of this rebranding comes from the Amato-Pagano clan. In the early 2000s, a mafia war broke out in the Naples neighbourhood of Scampia, a drug-dealing epicentre of Italy. The Amato-Pagano clan allegedly betrayed the Di Lauro clan and became known as “the secessionists”.

They’ve since responded by rebranding themselves as “Gli Spagnoli” (the Spaniards), a nickname derived from clan leader Raffaele Amato, who spent time as a fugitive in the Spanish Costa del Sol. Many videos we found are marked with the Spanish flag and the crown emoji. In one of them, a long parade of scooter races through the streets of one of the clan’s historic territories in the suburbs of Naples.

Marcello Ravveduto, professor of Digital Public History at the University of Salerno, said the mafia’s use of TikTok to spread their message makes sense. “We often forget criminal organisations and social media have a key thing in common: a network,” he said. And as the Camorra’s visibility on TikTok grows, so does its recruiting pool.