FIGHTING FIRE WITH FIRE: SOCIAL MEDIA, CELEBRITY, AND MIGRANT RIGHTS ACTIVISM IN ITALY

CW: Murder, suicide, abuse

by Alessandra Arpaia

In recent years, Italy has undergone enormous internal change as a result of mass immigration from sub-Saharan African countries. The situation has been exploited and manipulated from every angle by the Italian media, politicians and organised crime gangs, fostering hostility towards migrant labourers as well as fuelling their exploitation. Right-wing political elites are adept at harnessing the power of social media to influence the masses; but this is a tactic that needn’t be irreplicable for social justice movements and activists on the Left, too.

Immigrants are now the main source of labour in the Italian fields and the economy thrives off this cheap labour, but working conditions for migrant labourers are appalling, and often more comparable to slavery. Driven by demands for low prices, people are made to work for as little as €3 an hour, forced to live in slums, and suffer abuse and intimidation at the hands of their bosses.

Sadly, this has presented itself as an extremely profitable business for the Italian mafia, who see huge economic potential in this influx of cheap labour. In 2017, an investigation into the Cara Sant’Anna immigration reception centre revealed that the Arena mafia clan in Isola Capo Rizzuto “had embezzled a third of the €100m state funding” set aside for the centre. The investigation also found that “tiny portions of out-of-date food were served” and that “the number of residents was exaggerated to increase cash flow.”

Alas, this all took place even before right-wing Lega Nord party member Matteo Salvini assumed office as Interior Minister. Since his election, this type of abuse and mistreatment of migrants has only worsened, as much of Salvini’s political campaign was based on fuelling hatred and manipulating public perception of the issues surrounding immigration

Illiteracy has been deemed one of Italy’s plagues, with the country ranking fourth in the list of OECD countries for functional illiteracy…

His campaign has had traction, due somewhat to Italy’s abysmal literacy levels. Illiteracy has been deemed one of Italy’s plagues, with the country ranking fourth in the list of OECD countries for functional illiteracy, beneath Indonesia, Turkey and Chile. Salvini has learned how to use this to his advantage, mastering the art of using social media and fake news to appeal to the average voter, twisting narratives to stigmatise immigrant workers.

A figure who has brought to light the injustices these workers face is the prominent trade unionist and ex-refugee Aboubakar Soumahoro. Born in the Ivory Coast, Soumahoro first arrived in Italy in 1999. He studied sociology at the Federico II University in Naples and supported himself economically by working in the fields, and was also a member of the USB (Unione Sindacale di Base) trade union; one of the first trade unions to highlight the day-to-day struggles of food-delivery riders, farmworkers, and other precarious workers in Italy.

In June 2018 Soumahoro’s friend and fellow activist and trade unionist, Soumalia Sacko, was killed while looking for material to build a shelter for other workers in the camp of San Calogero in Calabria. In the wake of his murder, Soumahoro successfully organised a crowdfunding campaign to return Sacko’s body to his home country of Mali, and quickly assumed the role of spokesperson for the migrant revolts that took place demanding justice for Sacko and for the wider immigrant community.

However, both USB and CGIL (Italian General Confederation of Labour) have accused Soumahoro of being too moderate in his approach. Their main accusation being one of ‘protagonism’, not having any real organisation behind him, and working only through isolated spot interventions. Even though they haven’t stated it explicitly, it seems that his trade union colleagues do not approve of Soumahoro’s strategy and the use of his social media platform to increase awareness and garner support. For example, in 2020 he harnessed his popularity on social media to gather support for the Stati Popolari protest in Rome on July 5th, where he gave a speech standing against the unfair treatment of farmworkers during Italy’s first coronavirus lockdown.

“Fallaye Dabo, a laborer from the Foggia countryside of Lucera, committed suicide. An excruciatingly excruciating pain. Italy does not allow human beings to be subjected to an ugly inhumanity that engulfs them in the darkest desperation.”

Political figures like Donald Trump and Matteo Salvini have shown how social media can be used as a highly powerful tool for political influence. Salvini, for example, employs 35 dedicated social media managers who post every detail of his life on Facebook, with as much as 17 posts, 60.8 million interactions, 40 million likes every day. This social media strategy, nicknamed ‘The Beast’ contributed heavily to his party, Lega Nord, winning the 2019 elections with 34% of votes

…raising awareness is an important part of any activist’s work.

Working towards positive change in the south of Italy is no easy task, and is a struggle that can be exemplified through its tumultuous political history. Sadly, more often than not the people who advocate for social change are the ones that become the victims. To give some famous examples: anti-mafia prosecutors Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino were both killed in 1992 together with members of their security in two separate bomb attacks. Similarly, the anti-mafia activist Peppino Impastato was murdered in 1978 for denouncing the illegal activities of the local mafia. Writer and journalist Roberto Saviano is currently under the protection of armed guards, after receiving numerous threats from the mafia, and in 2018 Mimmo Lucano – mayor of the city of Riace in Calabria – was arrested for “aiding illegal immigration” (or rather, promoting the integration of migrants). The list could go on. 

It seems that the trade unionists who are criticising Soumahoro’s approach are more worried that his work might be detached from the collective struggle, focussing too much on gaining celebrity status. But raising awareness is an important part of any activist’s work. As the past shows, when you are actively challenging both the mafia and a far-right former interior minister, being “too moderate” is simply not an option.

With figures like Salvini and organised crime gangs instilling fear into the average citizen to further their own agendas, the only practical solution is to play them at their own game. Working on-site through organised action is important, but expecting other people to care about social justice issues without having enough of a personal presence – both in person and social media –  shows an oversimplified view of the current social climate. There is immense power in using personal exposure and testimony to foster greater levels of public awareness and compassion for other people’s struggles; and the power of social media to do so should not be underestimated.

Featured image credit: @aboubakar_soum Twitter page.


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