Virtual Padrini on Facebook

The moment I’m about to leave the sleepy grip of Italian winter an interesting controversy regarding freedom of thought, the mafia and the Internet giant springs unexpectedly up.

Just before the end of the year, articles in Italy and the UK sounded a note of alarm regarding the sudden proliferation of pages and groups praising former Mafia bosses such as Toto’ Riina and Bernardo Provenzano. Their creators were obviously eager to follow Facebook’s very own marketing device: a friend (of Cosa Nostra) is a fan.

International news organisations, blogs, and commentators quickly picked up the story, before it finally crash-landed back on Facebook — whose Italian operation has been the fastest-growing in 2008 with a whopping +961 per cent. Here it spawned a number of counter-groups that are now lobbying the network’s admin to censor these “Mafia apologists” and remove the pages they’ve created, or else they will leave Facebook en masse. Tens of thousands have subscribed to several groups and are now well on their way to top the 100,000 mark.

The biggest breakaway group — 58,000-strong at the time of publishing, up from 39,000 in only one day — has set an ultimatum for Sunday, January 18, and is asking its member to stick to it, noting that they represent a sizeable part of the 4.5 million Italian users — but not 10 per cent as the group’s creator claims.

Facebook’s bosses have so far excluded they will take any action, with spokesman Matt Hicks stating: “The controversy is not a good reason to proceed with the removal of the groups.” As noted in many wall posts, Facebook recently forbade the posting of pictures of breastfeeding women considering them too explicit, a decision that now seems even more controversial.

However, the really interesting aspects of the walls’ discussions is that they have not simply been one-way denunciations of ignorance and poor taste, but informed posts and replies about freedom of thought and expression in the age where king among mass media is the Internet.
They asked questions such as: do we want the Internet to be free and unregulated so everyone can assert their own opinion? If so, are we ready to accept some that we may find inappropriate and offensive? If not, where do we draw the line, what is permitted and what isn’t?

Others pointed out that leaving Fecebook in protest against their somehow nonchalant policies will do the cause no good, completely leaving the scene to the Mafia enthusiasts — who care not a dime if the networking site ‘allows’ their opponents to set up anti-Mafia groups.
And I feel to agree with this because I believe in total freedom of expression in any medium, mitigated, if necessary, by certain circumstances and the author’s own sensitivity. But also because I’ve done some maths: several groups praising Toto’ Riina and Bernardo Provenzano count, all together, 1,813 members — at the time of publishing —, a tiny spec of dust in the giant’s eye if compared to the overwhelming support mustered by their counterparts.

Below are a number of links referring to the on-going controversy as reported by various media outlets. Enjoy the read and feel free to join the debate.

Fury as Mafia godfathers idolised on Facebook - Times Online
Pro-mafia Facebook pages cause alarm in Italy - Reuters
Facebook Mafia confronts actual Mafia on facebook -

Su Facebook il gruppo degli ammiratori di Toto' Riina - Walter Gianno
Padrini virtuali, Facebook e la demonizzazione di internet - Visti da Lontano
E Facebook non chiude il gruppo a favore del boss Riina - Corriere della Sera

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