By Amanda Field
If you’re a cell-phone-toting American—and most of us are—you likely received this “Presidential Alert” text on Wednesday: “THIS IS A TEST of the National Wireless Emergency Alert System. No action is needed.”
Publicized as a direct message from President Trump to your cell phone, the text was in fact sent by FEMA as part of the long-standing Emergency Broadcasting System. Once approved by the White House, these messages are routed through wireless service providers, such as Verizon, Sprint, and AT&T, through an online system called the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS).
The text “was expected to reach some 225 million people in an unprecedented federal exercise,” per the Washington Post. Unlike regional emergency weather or missing children alerts, the Presidential Alert offers no opting out option. Wired suggested a DIY opt-out method: Put your cell phone on airplane mode during the half an hour the text message is scheduled to be sent. In the future though, no opt-out is available. If the end is nigh, the President wants to tell you himself.
But not everyone got the message. According to a FEMA statement, your phone had to be turned on, in range of an active tower and not currently in use. “If a user is on a call, or with an active data session open on their phone, they might not have received the message,” FEMA said.
In case you missed the first-hand experience Twitter was alight with #PresidentialAlert memes.
“DID YOU GET MY TEXT MESSAGE” pic.twitter.com/u7zBCzB7vG
— A Lil Birdie Told Me (@EmmReef) October 3, 2018
— Don Calzone (@DonCalzoneVIP) October 5, 2018
— Ellen DeGeneres (@The__EIIenShow) October 4, 2018
Reactions to the Presidential Alert text message was a rapid-fire barometer of the current political climate. For some, the text triggered distrust of the current administration and its Overtweeter-In-Chief. Concerning the lack of an opt-out option, a suit pleading a breach of the First and Fourth Amendments was dismissed by a federal judge in New York.
The effectiveness of such nationwide emergency alerts remains to be seen. According to Wired, “In the event of an IPAWS warning of a real nuclear strike, Americans would likely have about 8 to 12 minutes to seek shelter before the missiles arrived.” Some researchers suggest that alerts can prompt users to search the internet for more information instead of running for cover. Others worry that the messages can incite panic, as it did for Hawaiian residents in January, when a state official mistakenly sent an alarming text message that warned of a ballistic missile attack that read “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”