When he takes office on January 20, President-elect Donald Trump will have the ability to group-text the whole country. Given the impulsive, baffling, and incessant way he uses Twitter to run his point into the ground and bully anyone he considers an enemy, a mass text sent by Donald Trump sounds like reason enough to throw all our cell phones into the abyss and return to letter-based communication. In 2006, Congress passed the Warning, Alert, And Response Network Act, which put Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEAs) into place. WEAs are 90-character targeted messages that can be sent to every cell phone getting a signal from a certain geographical area relevant to the alert. In the case of nationwide emergencies, that means every cell-carrying member of the United States.
According to the Federal Communications Commission, three different types of WEAs can be sent: alerts issued by the President, alerts involving imminent threats to safety or life, or AMBER Alerts. Cell phone carriers can allow subscribers to block all but one of these alerts, but the Presidential ones are legally unblockable. Given that Trump thought it was appropriate to go on a heated Twitter tirade against Alicia Machado at 3 in the morning, it’s hard to believe the same man would have sensible judgement when it comes to what qualifies as a suitable text message for the nation to receive.
There are, thankfully, some checks and balances in place that will hopefully ensure the entire nation doesn’t receive a 3 a.m. text storm any time over the next four years. Sending a WEA is hardly as simple as sending out a 140-character tweet. Getting access to the system itself takes a lot of time and effort, and people usually take two courses on how to use the system. And hey, it’s unclear if Trump even knows how to use a computer.
WEAs also have to be issued through FEMA’s Integrated Public Alert & Warning System, so an emergency alert from the president has to go through at least one other office before getting sent to the public. While Trump gets to select his own head of FEMA, which is under control of the executive branch, the agency would likely be committed to making sure its alert system isn’t being exploited and used for non-emergency purposes. But what the new administration considers an emergency is certainly cause for concern. A WEA sent to New Yorkers earlier this year instigated Islamophobic sentiments and ultimately did nothing for the public other than stir up fear and misinformation. Trump’s WEA power coupled with his administration’s promise to increase surveillance on Muslim communities could be very bad.