Illustrations: Ricardo Santos

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.

Colleen Hagerty
Published in
21 min readMar 31, 2020

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ByBy 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…

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Colleen Hagerty
OneZero
Writer for

Colleen Hagerty is a freelance multimedia journalist specializing in disaster reporting. More at www.colleenhagerty.com.