On Wednesday afternoon, nearly every smart phone in America blared and vibrated with an emergency alert – the first ever test of the national Presidential Alert system.
The Presidential Alert is similar to the state-level systems that let police and local authorities send out AMBER Alerts and weather warnings. The biggest difference is its scale. Wednesday’s nationwide system was designed to blast a message to all 225 million smart phones in the United States – and reach about 75% of the population.
News of the Presidential Alert test drew immediate criticism on some corners of social media – with some people vowing to turn off their phones, believing wrongly that they will be a captive audience of President Donald Trump. Some even mused – incorrectly – that the system would allow him to tweet to every American.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and experts say the Presidential Alert will not be Trump’s personal megaphone to America. Instead, they argue, it’s a necessary 21st-century update to the Emergency Alert System that has for decades allowed the president to authorize broadcasts on every television and radio in the country in the event of a national emergency.
Here’s what you need to know about Wednesday’s test of the Presidential Alert system.