Jealousy, Rumors, and Suspicion: How Facebook Disaster Groups Turn On Themselves
The Paradise Fire Adopt a Family Facebook group had almost 30,000 members helping and seeking help. Then it imploded.
By the time Victoria Sinclaire pulled out of her driveway on the morning of November 8, 2018, the house next to hers was on fire.
When she picked up her grandmother from a nearby mobile park, the morning sky had turned dark; the street ahead of her was illuminated orange and red by the flames lining the road and the brake lights of gridlocked cars. She was one of thousands fleeing Paradise, California, as the Camp Fire consumed acres by the minute. It would later be recognized as the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in modern California history.
She picked up her cellphone — no service. But she was able to access some of her social media apps on data, so she turned to Facebook. There she discovered the “call” function on Facebook Messenger for the first time. She pulled up her mother’s page first, then her brother’s. She left both of them voice messages saying goodbye.
Over the last decade, social media has come to play a critical role in the response to disasters like the Camp Fire. As the current coronavirus pandemic leaves hundreds of millions of people in quarantine around the world, these platforms have proved crucial for maintaining lines of communication. First responders, government officials, and relief organizations have embraced Facebook and Twitter to widely disseminate critical information.
“In times of disaster or crisis, people turn to Facebook to check on loved ones and get updates,” reads a 2014 press release from the company. At the time, Facebook was announcing Safety Check, a feature that allows users on the social media platform to mark themselves “safe” when in areas struck by a crisis.
In the years since, Facebook has introduced a Crisis Response page as well as a fundraising option, which offers users the ability to leverage their personal narratives and networks for charitable causes. Facebook fundraisers have proved popular: A single campaign started by an Australian entertainer raised over $50 million (AUD) for the Australian bushfires this past winter. Facebook developers have also created Disaster Maps to assist international agencies like UNICEF as well as domestic nonprofits, researchers, and universities trying to learn more about populations affected by disasters.
“In times of disaster or crisis, people turn to Facebook to check on loved ones and get updates.”
And then there’s Groups, a longstanding feature that Facebook has promoted heavily over the past year. Billed as a place to gather around common interests, groups have also come to serve as interactive bulletin boards for communities impacted by catastrophes. Search for any of the large-scale natural disasters of the past few years, and you’ll likely find at least one group created in response.
For example, three years after Hurricane Harvey slammed into Texas and Louisiana, the group Hurricane Harvey 2017 — Together We Will Make It; TOGETHER WE WILL REBUILD still boasts 111,000 members. Another called #HurricaneStrong that was created for a broader “community of storm survivors” has more than 460,000 members who run internal safety checks after large-scale storms and offer uplifting content throughout the rest of the year (yes, it’s a lot of memes).
Today, with large swaths of the world’s population practicing self-isolation in response to the spread of the coronavirus, more than 100 related groups have sprung up, attracting hundreds of thousands of users. More than 20 of these are run by Warning Watch, a page created in July 2018 that now says it offers “real time virus tracking maps, virus counters and graphs, and official Facebook groups.” Despite there being no credentials to support the page’s validity, its public and private groups have 20,000-plus members combined.
There are also plenty of groups created by individuals in affected areas, such as Washington State — Coronavirus (COVID-19) Updates and California Coronavirus Alerts. There are pages related solely to memes. To myth-busting. Others raise red flags with their names alone, such as COVID-19 Corona virus Natural Remedies and Updates, a private group for “updates and possible remedies.”
The majority of these groups center around sharing general information, with a constant influx of links populating the pages. It’s not unusual for groups to see hundreds if not thousands of posts a day, with death statistics and personal testimonies particularly common. In more localized groups like Washington’s, watch parties are organized for officials’ press conferences, which members respond to in real time.
In a moment when so much feels uncertain — including our ties to each other, with the internet providing the entirety of some people’s social interactions — these groups can fill essential voids. This makes them, at best, an immensely powerful tool to combat loneliness and provide a sense of community; at worst, they create spaces that are ripe for taking advantage of those at their most vulnerable.
It’s a duality Camp Fire survivors have become intimately familiar with over the past 16 months. And no group would come to exemplify that tension better than Paradise Fire Adopt a Family.
As the toll of the disaster became clear that November day, Facebook groups immediately started to form. Some focused on finding housing while others centered on locating thousands of missing people.
Questions emerged about the people behind the posts, about how resources were being allocated, and about the motivations of the group’s creators, who had no geographic or personal ties to the affected community.
Sinclaire was one of the luckier residents of Paradise; after a terrifyingly slow crawl in a line of cars, she managed to safely escape the fire. In the months since, she has started rebuilding her life. Today, sitting in her bright, open kitchen, built over the ashes of her previous home, she says she’s currently a member of at least 15 active Camp Fire groups. Among Camp Fire survivors, that’s a pretty low figure; one survivor I spoke with says she’s in about 40. Nearly all, including Sinclaire, will tell you that at some point, they were part of Adopt a Family.
Within weeks of the disaster, that group became the go-to destination for all things Camp Fire recovery. Outside the oversight and regulations of established aid organizations and government agencies, it offered survivors a large, engaged audience to solicit crowdfunding donations or even direct assistance — a sort of ad hoc social safety net in the absence of institutional support. Wishes as small as gas money and as large as housing could be granted through a single post.
Perhaps above all else, the group offered a connection for a scattered, shell-shocked community. Survivors found virtual shoulders to cry on, strangers living miles away who responded to their raw, pained posts with likes, GIFs, and comments offering comfort and encouragement. Some of these relationships even made it offline, turning into regular phone dates, friendships, and even job offers. People started referencing Adopt a Family offhand, tossing it into conversations alongside the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) or the Red Cross with no further explanation. If you knew anything about the Camp Fire recovery effort, you knew what they meant.
That is until the group turned on itself. Questions emerged about the people behind the posts, about how resources were being allocated, and about the motivations of the group’s creators, who had no geographic or personal ties to the affected community. Hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of relief were exchanged with no oversight. Arguments that centered around who deserved a car or house or donation had real-world impacts on survivors. A community scattered by a natural disaster found itself further divided by people who had turned to the group for solace but instead found themselves choosing sides and attacking their former neighbors with impunity.
Within a year, the group would implode, in part a victim of the unregulated nature of the platform that made it so successful to begin with. In its wake, Paradise Adopt a Family left disappointment and distrust — and a community still in need.
A few days after the fire swept through Paradise, Eric Lofholm saw a Facebook post about a friend of a friend who lost everything. Lofholm lives in Rocklin, California, about an hour and a half south of Butte County, which took the brunt of the blaze. He had no other connection to anything or anyone in the disaster area, but he felt compelled to take action.
“In a situation like this, people are looking for leadership,” the 49-year-old told me, his voice upbeat and excitable over the phone. An admitted Facebook fan, Lofholm often uses Facebook Live and Groups in his career as a sales trainer.
He speaks with the confidence of someone accustomed to standing in front of crowds — he’s currently trying to set a Guinness World Record for offering the “most motivational sales trainings” in one year. His many Facebook videos show him making easy eye contact with the camera, often through narrow, thin-framed glasses. He comes off polished with smoothed-down brown hair and a penchant for wearing button-up shirts.
Lofholm decided to apply his Facebook skills and start a group to help families impacted by the fire. Inspired by an “adopt a family” fundraiser he’d participated in at his church, his goal was to connect those in need with “helpers” like him. He didn’t do any research on whether other groups already existed — at the time, he didn’t even know the name of the Camp Fire. Instead, he named his group for the town most famously impacted: Paradise Fire Adopt a Family.
“The fire was still burning when we launched,” Lofholm says. “My original thought was that maybe 1,000 people would join the group, we’d help 10 families, and that would be that, you know, we all get back to our lives.”
He posted a video on the public group, calling for 1,000 shares and 100,000 views, an ambitious request he thought was “never gonna happen.”
It ended up getting more than double those numbers.
Lofholm says the group started growing by 1,000 people per day, quickly attracting some of the tens of thousands of residents displaced by the fire. Former neighbors, no longer physically in the area, were reunited, all grappling with an unceasing need that they hoped these helpers could address.
While government agencies and nonprofit organizations have deep pockets to provide assistance, they require recipients to go through vetting, sometimes requesting paperwork residents may have lost in the fire. In contrast, the Adopt a Family group made things happen, fast, with none of the red tape.
Lofholm says the group never dealt directly with money but rather amplified fundraisers run by other individuals or organizations. At one point, the group partnered with the Global Empowerment Mission, or GEM. The 501(c)(3) claims to be “disrupting the disaster non-profit arena” with “alternative solutions, smart partnerships, true efficiency and fiscal responsibility.” A now-archived post promoting the cooperation between the organization and Lofholm’s group says funds donated to GEM would be put toward helping Paradise residents obtain housing, tools, counseling, and gift cards. The organization lists Lofholm as a member of its advisory board.
He didn’t do any research on whether other groups already existed — at the time, he didn’t even know the name of the Camp Fire.
Adopt a Family also proved powerful for those with specific item requests big and small. In the beginning, all requests were welcome. There were the sentimental ones, like Jessie Thweat, who asked for a giraffe blanket after her beloved one was lost in the fire. “A lady was nice enough to replace it, no questions asked,” she told me later. Others were more urgent: Tina Balasek, who had preexisting health issues, lost her home and desperately needed a place to stay. Her posts caught the attention of Alyssa Nolan-Cain, who lives just a short drive away from Paradise in Oroville, California, and started the Tiny Homes for Camp Fire Survivors project. Balasek was one of the early recipients of her small, portable houses.
For Balasek, who refers to herself as “old school” and who had little previous social media experience, getting used to the mechanics of the group was a shock to the system.
“You’d post a need, and you’d get a thousand responses. ‘Have you done this? Have you thought of that? What about this?’” she elaborates.
Though the group often offered immediate feedback, it could also be finicky, and the unspoken rules of social media emerged: Posts paired with attractive photos often rose to the top, especially if they featured pets and kids.
“It could feel like a beauty pageant,” Balasek says.
To help less-popular posts reach more eyeballs, helpers would often comment “bump,” pushing them back up the page. It wasn’t a perfect system, but people like Thweat and Balasek stuck to it because the proof was in the posts: Survivors received immediate assistance when their cars or trailers broke down. GoFundMe accounts were filled. Amazon Wishlists were purchased. Lofholm describes how one volunteer used the group to raise funds for fuel. She would then invite residents to meet her at local gas stations and cover the cost to fill their tanks. Lines would stretch into the street.
“We were producing results,” Lofholm says. “We didn’t have the restrictions of the nonprofits because nonprofits are accountable. I mean, every dollar that comes in, they have to say, ‘What happened to that money?’ Well, we’re not a nonprofit, and we weren’t collecting any money. So we [had] no rules, [and we could] do whatever we wanted to do.”
It was simultaneously “incredible” and “overwhelming” for Lofholm and his wife, who ran the group alongside him. By December 2019, he estimated they were each putting in about 40 hours of work into the group per week. They started to delegate, bringing in half a dozen volunteer moderators to help check posts and lightly vet survivors’ stories. While the group was just one among dozens formed in response to the fire — a search today turns up more than 70 public groups — it was by far the largest, ultimately surpassing 30,000 members.
“We didn’t have the restrictions of the nonprofits because nonprofits are accountable.”
The Lofholms would regularly post Facebook Live videos in the group. Sometimes it was just Eric sharing inspirational messages, urging viewers to set themselves up for success. Other times, the couple would broadcast themselves out in Paradise, meeting with survivors and helpers to show off connections they’d helped forge. These videos would receive thousands of views.
Customs emerged: Helpers began soliciting birthday card requests to ensure survivors, particularly children, still received a little extra attention on their big day. These posts rarely needed a bump — the comments sections were constantly refreshing, filled with photos of smiling people presenting their bounty of well-wishes.
Survivors of the fire posted artwork, poems, and photos offering nostalgic glances of what Paradise once was, often recalling the tall trees that shrouded the streets and the dramatic canyon views that could be seen driving down Skyway Road. Survivors and helpers alike bonded over the town’s beauty.
“I had really, really big visions for what we were going to do,” Lofholm says of those earlier days, his voice over the phone growing louder, his words faster. “I saw raising $10 million. Initially, the plan was that we were going to keep the group active to June of 2020. I saw being very active with the local recovery efforts. I thought the Butte County government was going to embrace us. I had some really big visions of what was going to happen. And we made a big mark, but honestly, we did a fraction of what we could have done.”
“I was a member of the Paradise Adopt a Family for probably about a week,” says Sinclaire. “Then that was just too much.” She didn’t like the volume of posts, which she says made the group difficult to follow. And then, she adds, it was “very negative.” After that week or so, she left the group.
Once the initial rush of requests were fulfilled, maybe a month or so after the fire, Lofholm says he started noticing that group members became more and more critical of each other.
“Somebody would get donated a car, and they would judge that person. ‘You know what? They don’t deserve the car; they didn’t have it as bad as the other person.’ They’d just rip each other to shreds on the internet,” he says.
Balasek says that after she was gifted her tiny home, group members became “vicious.” “People say, ‘Why would you get it and I didn’t?’” she remembers. “The attacks can be horrible because you can get away with it. You’re a stranger and they’re a stranger, and they can say whatever crud they want to.”
“They’d just rip each other to shreds on the internet.”
Lofholm says he tried to rein the group back in. He changed the group from public to private. Administrators began screening posts more closely, including those for help. But some members began feeling that admins were overstepping their bounds. That led them to question their motives.
“I noticed that the admin and creators seemed to start finding issues with people and accusing them of lying about their needs,” says Thweat, the survivor who received a beloved blanket through the group and credits Adopt a Family with giving her a push to “pick myself up off the ground.” She recalls reaching out to the group for some basic items, like clothing, to help out her landlord, who didn’t have his own Facebook account. She says she was accused by an admin of lying despite offering up proof to back up her request. So she chose to leave the group.
Jess Mercer, a Camp Fire survivor and community activist, also had concerns over the administrative process, namely a lack of oversight. Posts advertised giveaways that never happened or happened somewhere other than where they’d been advertised.
“Now we have people that are angry. Now, they might not trust this media information, and they’re not going to go back and try to get help again,” Mercer says. She’s sympathetic to the struggles of moderating such a large contingent without a “playbook,” she says, but, “it’s up to these admins of different groups to kind of filter that out.”
L.C. Culbreath, a helper from the greater Sacramento area, agreed that the group’s size became a hindrance to “effectively sharing information.” But, she says, the issue was much larger than just vetting misinformation.
“The PFAAF [Paradise Fire Adopt a Family] founders and admins bullied and belittled members,” Culbreath told me in a Facebook message. Culbreath says she was blocked by Lofholm after challenging some of the group’s fundraising methods and claims. She specifically had questions about Lofholm’s push for donations to GEM.
“Eric was telling people to donate to GEM, and then he would give the money to those needing help,” she says. She felt it was an inefficient system given the time-sensitive needs. “There were numerous groups who we know were there with equipment and trucks and already raising funds. The quickest way for people to help was donating directly.”
Culbreath says that suggestion led to her getting “called out” and “blocked” and that she watched multiple other members face similar treatment when questioning Lofholm’s methods. She points to another instance in which a woman criticized GEM’s aid application, which requested survivors’ Social Security numbers. Culbreath says that post got the member “banned, blocked, and badmouthed” by the group’s leadership.
Lofholm sees it like this: “I was the face of the group. So I ended up being the face of negativity.”
Lofholm maintains that Adopt a Family never collected any direct donations, but he was still the target of unsubstantiated rumors about misappropriated money. He was accused of paying for his house with group donations. He read that the district attorney was looking for information about him.
“You have to kick a person out of the group because of how they’re behaving? Well, now you just created a hater.”
The allegations struck a nerve with the Lofholms, who both posted about stepping back from the group. But they didn’t stay away for long. In one Facebook Live video posted to the group titled “Eric’s Rant,” Lofholm seethed about dealing with this backlash, questioning if he wanted to continue taking “the high road” and suggesting that five unnamed women were the source of these rumors.
Even though Culbreath was not named in the video, she says she started receiving hate mail after it was posted. She says she is aware of people who went to the district attorney about interactions with Lofholm but that she was not involved in any sort of investigation. Lauren Horwood, a public information officer with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of California, says there is nothing in the public record that points to Facebook playing a role in any of the fraud cases the office investigated following the fire but would neither confirm nor deny an investigation involving Paradise Fire Adopt a Family.
Speaking to me about it months later, Lofholm is still frustrated.
“You have to kick a person out of the group because of how they’re behaving? Well, now you just created a hater,” he says. Ultimately, Facebook is a double-edged sword for efforts like his — the very features that make it such a powerful tool for connecting users and resources can be turned against anyone. “Facebook will do nothing to protect you. It’s free speech. They don’t care, and so people can say whatever they want to say. So, that’s a real challenge, as great of a tool as it can be.”
In 2019, Facebook reported 1.4 billion people were using Groups each month. According to a spokesperson from Facebook, management of the groups largely lies on the shoulders of those who choose to create them or take on administrator roles.
In the wake of disasters, the spokesperson said that Facebook will work with people it identifies as community leaders, advising them on best practices for general tasks such as managing member requests and content moderation. They also point to publicly available information on the network’s “Community” page.
The site does have tools for users to flag groups, fundraisers, and individuals they believe are problematic. The groups are then reviewed by an internal team.
Lofholm says that when his group numbers were spiking, he assumed someone from Facebook would reach out. He believes the group was facilitating the exchange of upward of $1 million in value through donations and giveaways, and people’s well-being was at stake. But that never happened, and he says he felt like he was in the Wild West. Administrators from other types of groups have expressed similar sentiments, even with the additional support tools the company has created for them in recent years.
Jeannette Sutton, a professor and the director of the Risk and Disaster Communication Center at the University of Kentucky, says that despite the risk of running such support groups on the platform, Facebook’s prominence as a gathering place for disaster survivors make sense.
Facebook interactions also offer a response immediacy that is light-years ahead of traditional aid agencies.
“This is kind of what Facebook is supposed to be about, right?” Sutton says. “Finding people who you can connect with and support one another. It’s a social network, and it’s intended to help us to strengthen those relationships between one another.”
Facebook interactions also offer a response immediacy that is light-years ahead of traditional aid agencies, which typically utilize social media more for official statements than engaging in direct communication with those in need. A spokesperson for FEMA said that while the agency does not “actively engage” with groups unless tagged, it will use them to see if there are any pervasive rumors or gaps in information. If there are, it might craft a statement with those points in mind.
Sutton believes the agencies could benefit from even more direct involvement in these groups, potentially using them as places to help spread their messaging directly.
“Oftentimes false rumors are started because people don’t have enough information,” she explains. “They really get going in these close networks where people are not relying on external information.”
She says that for victims of a disaster, it’s worth approaching these groups with caution.
“I think that there would always be a downside to this — you never know if a person is running some sort of scam,” Sutton says. Even if it is legitimate, “donations management can get out of hand, and coordination requires a lot of time and attention,” she adds.
Ultimately, she sees Facebook groups for survivors as both a blessing and a curse.
“Anyone can participate, which means anyone can share what they think is real and what they don’t think is real,” she says.
In the fall of 2019, Lofholm announced his intention to delete Paradise Fire Adopt a Family. “It was not a hard decision,” Lofholm says. “The noise got so loud that we just couldn’t keep the group up anymore.”
Commenters pleaded with him not to while administrators of the dozens of other groups touted their pages as replacements, with some even co-opting the “Adopt a Family” title. The criticisms surrounding Lofholm continued to swirl.
Then, one late November day within weeks of the fire’s one-year anniversary, Paradise Adopt a Family was gone, erasing an archive of struggle, recovery, kindness, and resentment. As soon as the group was deleted, Lofholm says the messages and attacks stopped. He says he never heard from the district attorney.
For Mercer, the shutdown wasn’t surprising; it’s a pattern she saw happen to a number of groups following the fire.
“There’s not an instruction book with how big Paradise Adopt a Family got,” she says. “Some of these self-regulated groups were just paved with the best of intention. But unfortunately, they were not paved with foundation, and they quickly fell through because it was just way too much for certain people.”
Just as Lofholm closed his group, another fire raged thousands of miles away, and another group was created. In response to the horrors she saw happening in her country, Kelly Dargan, a mother in New South Wales, Australia, created Australian Bushfires 2019/2020, which now has more than 11,000 members from all over the world. Just like Lofholm, she had not researched whether similar Facebook groups already existed. Dargan says keeping up with the group is difficult enough that she has “recruited another administrator and four moderators.” So far, she touts the experience as overwhelmingly positive, though she says they have dealt with some fraudulent profiles attempting to scam members for donations.
To a degree, a similar pattern is now playing out during the coronavirus outbreak, though the scope of the disaster is certainly much broader. While there have been reports of some hyperlocal community groups forming to support neighbors, the majority of these 100-plus groups, like CoronaVirus Warning Watch and Coronavirus Updates — (COVID-19), are focused less on tangible assistance or recovery efforts and much more on sharing information, recommendations, and, in many cases, rumors. Nearly every group I looked through included posts of dubiously sourced alerts or health recommendations, conspiracy theories about the virus’s origin or government responses, and, perhaps most alarmingly, people sharing symptoms and asking others online to help them make potentially critically health decisions. When asked about misinformation concerns during a press call on March 18, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg addressed the groups directly.
Though the coronavirus groups are all relatively new, some already share traits that proved insurmountable for Paradise Fire Adopt a Family.
“For groups where a bunch of misinformation has been reported to be spread, we removed those groups from recommendation,” he said. “We allow you to send things that are wrong if they’re not going to lead to imminent, physical harm, but we don’t want those to be the main things that are spread, and we don’t want to be recommending groups that are doing that.”
Though the coronavirus groups are all relatively new, some already share traits that proved insurmountable for Paradise Fire Adopt a Family: rapid growth — making it difficult to keep track of posts and reach a community consensus — infighting and rumors, all of which ultimately lead to a lack of trust. Given the current climate of fear, it’s likely that the number of groups will only continue to grow. If Adopt a Family is any indication, dissatisfied members will just move from one group to another.
The Camp Fire survivors I spoke with say they have a tough time imagining a future without being a part of the groups formed in the fire’s aftermath, though most also said they have limited their time or the number of groups they are in over the past year.
After her negative experience, Balasek says she’s learning to pull back on how much she shares online. Sinclaire, one of the small fraction of residents who have managed to return to Paradise, says she’s now able to offer advice in the groups to others trying to move back. She enjoys getting to be a helper, though she has found herself checking out of some of the larger groups, which she says can make her feel “bitter and jaded.”
“I think over time, it’s just people get tired,” she says. “And it’s like, ‘Okay, well, it’s time to move on.’”
But maybe not for long. When Sinclaire’s daughter’s apartment flooded in early 2020, she returned to an old habit. She logged onto Facebook and rejoined a Facebook group called Camp Fire Butte County Resource Group #CampFire. Then she asked for help.