Purdue University Graduate School
Benedict - Dissertation FINAL.pdf (2.87 MB)

The Use and Utility of Disaster Facebook Groups for Managing Communication Networks after the Camp Fire: A Case Study of the Unique Spaces for Connection for Survivors' Resilience and Recovery

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posted on 2021-07-28, 19:35 authored by Bailey C BenedictBailey C Benedict
With natural disasters occurring with more frequency and severity, understanding how to facilitate survivors’ resilience and recovery is becoming increasingly important. The Camp Fire in California, which started on November 8, 2018, was one of the most destructive wildfires in recorded history in terms of loss of life and damage to property. Aid from many types of entities (e.g., non-profits, governments, and for-profits) at various levels (e.g., local, state, and federal) was available to survivors, but perhaps the most influential source of support was Disaster Facebook Groups. In the month after the Camp Fire, around 50 Camp Fire Facebook Groups (CFFGs) were created, with over 100 CFFGs existing over the course of recovery. CFFGs are Facebook Groups with the goal of helping Camp Fire survivors. The support exchanged in CFFGs was immense and ranged from financial assistance to emotional support to community building.

This dissertation offers a mixed-method, event-specific case study of the use and utility of Disaster Facebook Groups after the Camp Fire. I examined how CFFGs offered unique and valuable spaces for connection that allowed members to engage in resilience organizing and disaster response and recovery. To conduct this case study, after engaging in observations of the Groups for over two years, I interviewed 25 administrators of CFFGs and distributed a survey in the Groups that was completed by survivors of the Camp Fire who were members of at least one CFFG during their recovery. I used network perspectives and the Communication Theory of Resilience (Buzzanell, 2010, 2019) as lenses through which administrators’ and survivors’ experiences with CFFGs was understood. I also analyzed the two datasets using multiple and mixed methods but primarily thematic analysis and path modeling.

The analyses for this case study are presented in four studies. The first two studies provide an understanding of the spaces for connection offered by CFFGs (i.e., characterizing the CFFGs and describing the spaces for connection as both helpful and hurtful), while the last two studies examine the use and utility of CFFGs (i.e., explaining the evolution of activity in CFFGs and investigating the connectivity and social support in CFFGs).

Across the four studies, I explored three central arguments, which are the primary contributions of this dissertation. First, I advocated for incorporating network thinking into resilience theorizing. With the findings of this dissertation, I extend the Communication Theory of Resilience by offering “managing communication networks” as a refinement of its fourth process of resilience (i.e., using and maintaining communication networks). Managing communication networks addresses the active strategies people use to manage their communication networks, including expanding, contracting, maintaining, and using their communication networks, as they endure and overcome hardship. I also forward the argument that people’s resilience is encompassed by their social networks, meaning their social network can be passively implicated by their resilience or actively involved in their resilience, but can also initiate resilience on their behalf.

Second, I contended Disaster Facebook Groups offer unique and valuable spaces for connection that facilitate resilience organizing and disaster response for at least five reasons. I argued that Disaster Facebook Groups empower emergent organizing; privilege local knowledge; are convenient; lack anonymity which adds authenticity; and allow for individualization. The findings of this dissertation provide evidence of how these reasons converged in CFFGs to enable members to exchange support that was not, and could not be, available elsewhere.

Third, I hypothesized that the use of Disaster Facebook Groups would predict the utility of Disaster Facebook Groups, resilience, and recovery for survivors. I tested two models that use different variables to represent the use and utility of CFFGs and recovery from the Camp Fire. The first model investigated how activity in CFFGs influenced the perceived helpfulness of CFFGs and how both the activity in and perceived helpfulness of CFFGs influenced the extent of recovery for survivors. I used retrospective data about five time points across survivors’ first two years of recovery and found the model was most explanative up to one month after the Fire. The second model assessed how various indicators of connectivity in CFFGs impacted received social support (i.e., informational, emotional, and tangible support), resilience, and satisfaction with recovery for survivors. The intensity of survivors’ connections to CFFGs, when they joined their first CFFG, and how many Facebook Friends they gained from their participation in CFFGs were the most predictive indicators of connectivity. From the Groups, survivors reported receiving informational support more than emotional support and emotional support more than tangible support.

I put the findings of the four studies, as well as the three central arguments, in conversation with each other in the discussion section, focusing on theory, practice, and methodology. Regarding theory, I contribute network thinking to resilience theorizing: I underscore resilience as an inherently networked process; I acknowledge expanding and contracting communication networks as sub-processes of resilience that complement but are distinctly different from using and maintaining communication networks; and I forward “managing communication networks” as a refinement and extension of the Communication Theory of Resilience’s fourth process of resilience (i.e., using and maintaining communication networks). Related to practice, I call for the continuation of conversations around Disaster Facebook Groups as unique and valuable spaces for connection, particularly regarding the five reasons I established. I also give suggestions for practice related to the use and utility of Disaster Facebook Groups for disaster response and recovery. For methodological considerations, I discuss the importance of forming relationships with participants when engaging in research about online communities and natural disasters and call to question the translation of findings about social media across platforms and the role of neoliberalism in resilience and disaster research and practice. Despite its limitations, this dissertation makes meaningful contributions to theory, practice, and methodology, while offering fruitful directions for future research. This mixed-method, event-specific case study brings attention to the influential citizen-driven disaster response in Facebook Groups after the Camp Fire.


Degree Type

  • Doctor of Philosophy


  • Communication

Campus location

  • West Lafayette

Advisor/Supervisor/Committee Chair

Seungyoon Lee

Advisor/Supervisor/Committee co-chair

Stacey L. Connaughton

Additional Committee Member 2

Sharon L. Christ

Additional Committee Member 3

Patrice M. Buzzanell