On Thursday, September 20th, at 2:18 p.m. ET, every cell phone in the United States that is turned on and within range of a working cell tower will receive an alert. Specifically, they will all be receiving what the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is calling a “Presidential Alert,” and the message will read as follows: “THIS IS A TEST of the National Wireless Emergency Alert System. No action is needed.” Thankfully, as CNN noted, the new alert system has been in the works since 2012, and it will not allow President Donald Trump to send political messages (as he commonly does on Twitter).
The Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) system was actually launched back in 2012, but CNN explained that Thursday’s test will be the first time that FEMA has ever tested it on such a large scale. The same system has been used regularly for the past several years to issue alerts about missing children (AMBER alerts) and extreme weather, but only in particular regions. For Thursday’s test, hundreds of cell phone carriers, including Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile, will be participating. So unless users choose to turn off their phones at the accorded time, they will be receiving the Presidential Alert (and cannot opt out of it).
Despite the agency’s assurances in their official press release, as well as reporting from CNN and other outlets, however, many on social media remain unconvinced that the Presidential Alert system cannot be co-opted by Trump’s more Twitter-centric tendencies. Even CNN’s Brian Stelter expressed doubts about the system: