On Wednesday at 2:18 p.m. EDT, your cellphone will light up with a message from the President of the United States. The alert will test a new nationwide communication method, and you can’t opt out of receiving the notification.
The alert will test the new Presidential Alert messaging system, which will be used to distribute information from the Oval Office and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to almost everyone in the United States when there are national emergencies such as natural disasters, acts of terrorism, or other threats to public safety.
But the test is causing some real concern. A lawsuit filed in New York late last month claims the system itself is “tantamount to hijacking private property for the purpose of planting a Government-controlled loudspeaker in the home and on the person of every American.”
This concern is rooted in the country’s history, said Ryan Ellis, an assistant professor at Northeastern whose research focuses on communication law and policy.
“You can draw a clear through-line from the outcry over unwanted junk mail, to email spam, to robocalls, and now this,” he said. “That concern is really familiar. People have anxiety about who gets to speak, when they get to speak, and what they get to say when it comes to their communication networks.”
And people have a particularly personal connection to their cellphones, Ellis said. “People are worried about the control they do or don’t have over this thing that sits in their pocket or purse all day long,” he said.
Unlike AMBER alerts, which disseminate information about a missing child, and regional weather alerts, people can’t opt out of Presidential alerts, according to information from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Sometimes the alert itself—with its particular warning sound and vibration—can cause anxiety, even if the language itself is benign.
Ellis traced that anxiety back to the birth of the Emergency Alert System, which governmental agencies can use to break into TV and radio broadcasts to announce national and regional warnings.
“I remember hearing the emergency broadcast system when it broke into my favorite cartoon as a kid, and even though it was a test, it was still alarming,” he said.