At 2:18 p.m. Eastern time on Oct. 3, nearly all mobile phones in the United States simultaneously received an alert with the message: “Presidential Alert: THIS IS A TEST of the National Wireless Emergency Alert System. No action is needed.”
In a less polarized environment, this test might have been viewed as routine. After all, the presidential alert system is the product of a bipartisan effort to improve emergency communications after Hurricane Katrina, established with an executive order by President George W. Bush in 2006 and modernized with bipartisan legislation signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2016.
But before this alert, alarmist headlines declared President Trump’s intentions to send Americans an inescapable text message that cannot be shut off. Calls to protest the alert lit up Twitter with hashtags encouraging Americans to shut off their phones (#GoDark2003, #phonesoff) and cancel their wireless plans. Some even went as far as to file lawsuits to prevent the alert altogether.
Here’s how we did our research
We partnered with Lucid, an online survey sampling firm, to conduct an experiment during the alert. In total, we asked 3,000 people whether people need to give up some privacy to be safe from national disasters and whether the government should be able to send mandatory emergency alerts to Americans’ cellphones.
In the experiment, one group of respondents was randomly assigned to answer these questions early in the survey, just before the scheduled time of the alert. Another group answered an unrelated set of questions when the alert came out, at which point they answered the same privacy questions — but after the alert.
Despite the fear that the alert would be polarizing, we didn’t find any evidence of this. Compared with those who answered the privacy questions before the alert, those who answered after the alert were slightly more supportive of these alerts and less concerned about privacy. This was true among Democrats and Republicans alike.
The polarization emerged only when we explicitly tied the alert to Trump. In the same survey, we ran a second experiment, randomly assigning a third group of respondents to receive information attributing the presidential alert to either Trump, Obama or neither president. When neither president was mentioned, the information said:
On Wednesday, October 3, there will be a test of a system that will allow the government to send a message to every cell phone in the U.S., using FEMA’s mobile alert system. Even though the system was created to alert people about national emergencies, there has been concern that Americans have no way to opt out of the alert.
Other respondents read that “the Trump Administration will test a system” or “there will be a test of a system created under the Obama administration.” Although both statements are true, they highlight different information about the alert’s origins.
People responded in a partisan way
This information had a predictable impact. Telling people that the Trump administration was testing the alert caused an 11 percent decrease in Democrats’ willingness to give up privacy to improve safety and a 7 percent decrease in support for the government’s ability to send emergency alerts. Attitudes among Republicans were not affected by associating the alert with Trump.
Similarly, telling people that the alert system was created under the Obama administration caused an 8 percent decrease in Republicans’ willingness to give up privacy and a 12 percent decrease in support for the government’s ability to send alerts.
Thus, the alert by itself didn’t polarize Democrats and Republicans. In fact, it barely changed attitudes at all. Instead, polarization emerged only after we directly linked Trump or Obama to the alert. This suggests that the partisan news coverage of the alert may have caused far more polarization than the alert itself.
(Originally posted by Brian Guay and Jesse Lopez in the Washington Post, October 2018)