September 17, 2018

Trump Isn't 'Taking Over' Your Cell Phone and This Conspiracy Theory Could Kill You One Day

Warning people about dangerous weather is a matter of life or death. Meteorologists need all the help they can get when it's time to get the word out about severe weather. The federal government is about to test one of those important warning systems in a few weeks. As we approach the test on October 3, I have one thing to say: Y'all are out of your got-danged, ever-lovin', conspiracy-addled minds if you think Donald J. Trump is planning to take your cell phone to make you read his angry rants while he watches television. Seriously? Come on now! Get a grip.

Stealing a page from Alex Jones' Little Black Book of Big Black Helicopters, the #resist side of Twitter has firmly latched on to the news that FEMA will conduct a nationwide test of the Emergency Alert System on Wednesday, October 3 as proof that Donald Trump is planning take over everyone's cell phones on command. The unbelievable hyperventilation over the test—which was also pushed about Obama by the Alex Joneses of the world seven years ago—came about thanks to several news sites and big-name viral Tweeters screaming misleading headlines at their millions of readers. Even Time's article on the tests opened with the line "you may be getting text messages from President Donald Trump soon."

Emergency Alerts Can Save Your Life

An example of what a Wireless Emergency Alert looks like on an Android smartphone.
Here's what's going on. FEMA will conduct a nationwide test of the Emergency Alert System on Wednesday, October 3. (The test was originally scheduled for September 20, but was rescheduled due to Hurricane Florence.) The test will be pushed to cell phones at 2:18 PM EDT and transmitted to television and radio stations at 2:20 PM EDT. The federal government has conducted these nationwide EAS tests a couple of times in recent years—to varying degrees of success—but this will be the first time that the test includes the Wireless Emergency Alert capability on cell phones.

Starting in 2012, all modern smartphones gained the ability to receive Wireless Emergency Alerts. These alerts are sent to your device based on your location. If you're within an alert—say, a tornado warning—you'll instantly see a push notification on your device that's accompanied by a loud, EAS-like tone. These WEAs are proven life-savers, transmitting alerts like tornado warnings to people who might not otherwise have been paying attention to the weather.

That's all it is. Really.

Wireless Emergency Alerts on your smartphone can save your life. The system has only been in place for a couple of years, but there are documented cases of people saving their lives by acting on alerts sent to their phone just minutes before their homes were destroyed in a tornado or flood.

The catch is that you can't disable presidential alerts. Those are the only alerts you can't shut off. You can shut off tests, severe weather alerts, and AMBER Alerts, however, which is what I fear many people will do if they're afraid "the president is taking over their cell phone." Do not shut off the weather alerts on your phone to spite the president. Tampering with your weather alert settings does nothing to stop the presidential alerts and could jeopardize your safety one day.

Presidential Alerts Are A Relic of the Cold War


It's easy to forget that the Emergency Alert System exists for reasons other than giving you chills. The EAS is the successor to the Emergency Broadcast System and CONELRAD, systems developed to allow the president to quickly address Americans in the event of a nuclear war or invasion. Due to the relative lack of nuclear wars or foreign invasions in the decades since the alert systems were developed, the ever-present feature on television and radio is mostly used to transmit severe weather warnings and child abduction alerts.

Every president since Harry S. Truman has had the ability to activate the EAS (or its predecessors) and quickly address Americans in the event of an emergency. The presidential purpose of the EAS didn't become widespread knowledge until FEMA conducted its first nationwide test of the system on November 9, 2011.

That test was pretty glitchy. Some stations never repeated the alert. Some never shut the alert off. Folks watching DirecTV heard pop music during the test. But finding those glitches was the whole point of the test. They've repeated that nationwide test a couple of times in recent years, but this will be the first to include test alerts on cell phones as well.

The Same Conspiracies Were Pushed About Obama

Similar conspiracy theories ran wild in the lead-up to the 2011 test, but from the other side of the spectrum. Alex Jones' site, InfoWars, ran news of the test with the headline "OBAMA LAUNCHES TOTAL TAKEOVER OF MEDIA SYSTEM."

Here's how they freaked out about it at the time:

Even the Washington Post describes it like something out of Orwell’s 1984. The FCC has approved a presidential alert system. Obama may soon appear on your television or call your cell phone to warn you about the next specious al-Qaeda underwear bombing event.

[...]

Once again, the government has imposed an unreasonable and absurd mandate on business and the American people


Sound familiar? Right-wing blogs and commentators, ever-wary of the government's power and seething with rage over Obama's presidency, latched on to these nationwide television and radio alerts as evidence that the president was going to use the system to take over the airwaves and indoctrinate Americans with propaganda.

That didn't happen, of course. No president has ever used the Emergency Alert System (or its predecessors) to address the country. The government didn't even use the system on September 11, 2001, as the events of the day were immediately carried live on every television network in the country.

The system is there, though, just in case they need to use it one day. You can argue that the central premise of the Emergency Alert System is less necessary today than it was back in the days when television and radio were our only means of instant mass communication. If North Korea launched a nuclear missile at the United States, we're likely going to hear about it before Trump or anyone in Washington can go through the steps of activating the EAS.

It's improbable that even the most attention-craving president would abuse the slow, bureaucratic process it takes to activate the Emergency Alert System as their own personal megaphone. It doesn't take long for a Trump tweet to make its rounds. A screenshot of every tweet is blasted on cable news within a minute of its issuance.

This system isn't there to let Trump send you text messages while he angrily watches Fox News. The system is there to warn you in case of a missile launch, foreign invasion, or natural disaster. You'll probably only ever see these alerts before tornadoes and flash floods. Please don't disable these alerts on your cell phone because of what you read online. The alerts could save your life one day.

*This post was corrected to reflect that the test was postponed from September 20 to October 3 due to the lingering effects of Hurricane Florence.

[CONELRAD advertisement via Wikimedia Commons]


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I graduated from the University of South Alabama in 2014 with a degree in political science and a minor in meteorology. I ran Gawker's The Vane for two years and I've contributed to Mental Floss, Forbes, Popular Science, and the Washington Post's Capital Weather Gang. I also teamed up with Outdoor Life to write a book called The Extreme Weather Survival Manual, which came out in October 2015.

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