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COVID-19 messages make emergency alerts just another text in the crowd on your home screen

People of a certain age remember radio and television broadcasts interrupted by tests of the Emergency Broadcast System. filo/DigitalVision Vectors via Getty Images

COVID-19 messages make emergency alerts just another text in the crowd on your home screen

People of a certain age remember radio and television broadcasts interrupted by tests of the Emergency Broadcast System. filo/DigitalVision Vectors via Getty Images

COVID-19 messages make emergency alerts just another text in the crowd on your home screen

People of a certain age remember radio and television broadcasts interrupted by tests of the Emergency Broadcast System. filo/DigitalVision Vectors via Getty Images

COVID-19 messages make emergency alerts just another text in the crowd on your home screen

People of a certain age remember radio and television broadcasts interrupted by tests of the Emergency Broadcast System. filo/DigitalVision Vectors via Getty Images

COVID-19-related messages are a new use of this alert system. They indicate changing ideas about what constitutes an emergency and underscore the challenges of public messaging in a personalized media environment.

Elizabeth Ellcessor, University of Virginia

On a spring day in 2020, residents of El Paso, Texas, saw their phones light up with a text message: “Avoid parks/family gatherings this Easter. Stay home, stay safe. Do it for your loved ones.”

This message, sent via the federal Wireless Emergency Alert system, was one of many designed to deliver COVID-19-related guidance directly to people’s cellphones.

COVID-19-related messages are a new use of this alert system. They indicate changing ideas about what constitutes an emergency and underscore the challenges of public messaging in a personalized media environment.

Traditionally, emergency alerts are sent to phones in a given area only in very serious circumstances: Amber Alerts for abducted children, presidential alerts for national emergencies, alerts about imminent threats to life or safety and alerts “conveying recommendations for saving lives and property.” Between 2012 and 2018, 96% of alerts were weather-related.

cell phone screenshot of an emergency alert

Emergency alerts are de facto declarations of emergencies, and people tend to respond accordingly. AP Photo/Caleb Jones

As I explain in my forthcoming book, “In Case of Emergency: How Technologies Mediate Crisis and Normalize Inequality,” use of a technology designated for emergencies effectively declares an emergency, and when people believe they are in the midst of an emergency they often change their feelings and behavior. For instance, an alert that declared a “ballistic missile threat inbound” to Hawaii in January 2018 prompted some people to panic. While this incident was quickly revealed to be a mistake – a Hawaii Emergency Management Agency employee confused a drill for an actual emergency – many people experienced an emergency: the fear, the confusion, the rush of activity....

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