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The problem with mobile emergency alerts

Mixing tech with preconceived racial stereotypes and mass communication risks safety instead of protecting it.

New Yorkers pass a shattered storefront window in Manhattan. The window was hit by shrapnel from the bomb that exploded across the street Saturday evening. CREDIT: AP Photo/Mark Lennihan
New Yorkers pass a shattered storefront window in Manhattan. The window was hit by shrapnel from the bomb that exploded across the street Saturday evening. CREDIT: AP Photo/Mark Lennihan

Following two bombings in New York City and New Jersey, New York officials deployed a mass emergency message Monday to notify everyone in the region that police were looking for 28-year-old alleged bomb suspect Ahmad Khan Rahami.

The message was sent through the wireless emergency alerts (WEA) system, which allows government agencies to send messages en masse using nearby cell towers to mobile devices in a specific location. Eric Phillips, spokesman for the New York Mayor’s office claimed it was the first time the system had been used to notify the public of a person of interest in a crime.

The move drew immediate criticism for stirring up public fear, which could have potentially resulted in innocent individuals being wrongly targeted by citizens aiding police efforts. Technologist and writer Anil Dash characterized the mass emergency message — and more broadly the “If you see something, say something” terrorism safety campaigns — as panic-inducing rather than safety focused.

Mass alerts could heighten racial tensions

Concerns aside, New York’s use of the WEA to help law enforcement locate a person of interest wasn’t out of bounds or completely unprecedented. Wisconsin police sent a similar alert in 2015 telling citizens to look out for a man who was potentially armed: “Missing 33 old white male Jess Wehrman. Blk hoodie & jeans. Do not approach call 9–1–1.”

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The WEA system, which is regulated in part by the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Emergency Management Agency in partnership with wireless providers, is meant to disseminate alerts from the president, for missing children (Amber alerts), and information that has an “imminent threat to safety or life,” such as severe weather, chemical spills, and acts of terror, according to the FCC.

Local governments have discretion in how they use the WEA communication system and which events deserve a widespread alert — even when terrorism is suspected. A Department of Homeland Security spokesperson told ThinkProgress the agency doesn’t put any limitations on how municipalities use the system for Amber and imminent threat alerts, and for its part, DHS focuses on providing the research and development behind WEA’s technology.

But while New York was within its rights to use the WEA system following the bombings, the incident raises intersecting questions about the over-criminalization of people of color, how they are treated by law enforcement, and whether the WEA system is the best way for police to crowdsource information about suspects.

Rising anti-Islam sentiments and Islamic State-inspired attacks in the U.S. and abroad have put the Muslim community at risk for profiling by law enforcement and the public overall. Attacks against Muslims have increased nearly 10-fold in the last year, including murders, physical assaults, shootings, and bombings. Georgetown University’s Muslim-Christian relations center, the Bridge Initiative, found 174 reported incidents of hate crimes against Muslims in 2015.

When New York City officials used the WEA system to help flush out alleged bomber Rahami, who has since been captured and charged with attempted murder after a shootout with police, they could have unintentionally stirred feelings of jeopardy and panic that stem from systemic racial discrimination in hopes of protecting the public from a threat. And by using the WEA system — which is intended to be used for imminent physical and safety threats, such as an active shooter or a national shelter-in-place event — officials may have created an unsafe atmosphere for Muslim or Middle Eastern looking men.

This isn’t to say the WEA message shouldn’t have been sent at all, but that specific communication combined with current racial tensions highlights the flaws of a system meant to keep all Americans safe.

Emergency alerts are too short to be effective

Local authorities often struggle with which events warrant a WEA message and how the public should respond or react to messages, according to a Carnegie Mellon University software engineering study that analyzed the WEA system and its uses. But a chief issue is how short the messages are.

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Messages sent through WEA are limited to 90 characters, more only two-thirds the length of a tweet. WEA messages also can’t include photos or links. The messages can be targeted to mobile devices within a certain area, which tend to be broader than necessary. That can result in notification fatigue, where many people just ignore or disable mobile alerts (not to mention the false alarms reported.)

“Messages with 280 characters appear superior to 90- and 140-character messages in terms of participants’ stated understanding.”

According to a 2014 study conducted by the University of Maryland at College Park’s National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism (START) and Responses to Terrorism and Homeland Security, emergency alerts need to be at least 280 words and up to 1,380 characters to be effective at improving public safety. That would be the equivalent of a breaking news or analysis story.

Lead researcher and START’s director Brooke Fisher Liu said that message length enhances public understanding of an issue.

“Messages with 280 characters appear superior to 90- and 140-character messages in terms of participants’ stated understanding, belief, personalization, and intention to comply with protective-action guidance,” Liu said in a news release last year announcing the study.

In addition to being longer, the START study found that ordering content by source, hazard, location, time and guidance, greatly increased understanding, and people were more likely to see how the threat affected them rather than dismissing it.

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“The message elements of ‘guidance’ and ‘time’ play major roles relative to other message elements when it comes helping people understand what’s happening and how to respond,” she said.

The way WEA messages are currently structured means that government officials can only send incomplete messages and point citizens to media reports for details. Those limitations forced New Yorkers to do a Google search to understand the meaning of city officials’ alert. In the end, the result would likely have been the same if the message was sent using traditional and social media.

Anything outside that which doesn’t require immediate action, can come across vague without enough context. Coupled with heightened public fears of a particular religious or racial group, a poorly executed alert can cause more damage than intended.

UPDATE: The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has voted to update the wireless emergency alerts (WEA) system to include photos, hyperlinks, Spanish-language text, and messages up to 360 characters. The agency adopted new rules in hopes of making communication easier between local authorities and the public, according to an FCC news release. As a result of its vote, the FCC also created a new class of alerts called “public safety messages” for issues such as emergency shelter locations and boil water orders.