In a recent press conference, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said the city activated a messaging system to get information out to all New Yorkers about the suspect in the New York and New Jersey bombings, which “definitely contributed to the successful apprehension of this suspect” and “is a tool we will use again in the future in similar situations.”
In fact, New York City Police Commissioner James O’Neill noted the FBI and the NYPD were able to get a suspect in custody within 50 hours and, reports said, that makes this likely the first time a text message alert was used as a digital wanted poster.
‘A modern approach’
The Office of Emergency Management opted to use the text message alert because it was a “very broad alert” and there was a “specific potential danger,” de Blasio said.
“This is a modern approach that really engaged the whole community,” he added.
O’Neill, too, pointed to the alert’s reach, as well as the sense of community it inspired.
“It’s that sense of shared responsibility,” O’Neill said. “If we can get everybody in this city engaged in helping us keep it safe, I think this is the way to go. This is the future.”
De Blasio, however, was light on specifics in terms of how exactly it helped apprehend the suspect, saying, “We think it’s a very valuable tool. We think it created a lot of focus and urgency.”
The New York Times called the message “the first widespread attempt to transform the citizens of a major American city into a vigilant and nearly omnipresent eye for the authorities,” noting the alert extended the city’s “If you see something, say something” messaging, which the New York City Metropolitan Transit Authority launched in 2003 and has since been licensed to the US Department of Homeland Security.
The nation’s Wireless Emergency Alerts system, which “allows customers who own certain wireless phones and other enabled mobile devices to receive geographically targeted, text-like messages alerting them of imminent threats to safety in their area,” has also reportedly been used after the Boston bombing in 2013 and, more recently, in Los Angeles to help keep citizens at the airport safe during a shooting scare.
Per David White, professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, who also assists the FBI as a crisis negotiation trainer and served as a civilian appointee to Re-Engineering 2014, or what he called the NYPD’s assessment of day-to-day operations and long-term policy goals, this is a natural evolution of the long-standing reliance on concerned citizenry.
“In the 1930s, the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted posters began to appear in post offices and provided the genesis for similar low-tech innovations. In 1985, the National Child Safety Council placed missing children on milk cartons,” White said. “Three years later, John Walsh began hosting America’s Most Wanted, an effort that led to the capture of more than 1,200 fugitives. And in 2002, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children honored 9-year-old Amber Hagerman with an eponymous alert that quickly creates mass awareness in the critical first hours of crisis.”
White called these “undeniably efficacious efforts” and noted “texting is simply the next logical evolutionary step to combat crime in the Information Age.”
Further, White said, “To be an American today, particularly one who chooses to live in a high-value terrorist target such as the New York Metro Area, is to embrace the modern social contract: We’re all in this together.”
In addition, John Barker, chief idea officer at digital agency Barker, said digital and mobile outreach helps empower citizens who might otherwise feel powerless.
“These alerts give each of us the power to do something,” Barker said. “It’s enfranchising the public and evening the scales in the fight of good against evil. It’s very powerful."
But that’s not to say only good can come of this.
Mobile devices help reach an audience of maximum size – and consumers are certainly programmed to check their phones when they get alerts, which means these alerts work for the time being, said Purna Virji, senior manager of PPC training at Microsoft. However, emergency messaging services, far more than advertisers, have to ensure their messages reach the right audiences.
Eric Grant, creative director of emerging experiences at interactive agency Razorfish, agreed text alerts are an effective way to communicate urgent information, but said his concern is how and when they’re used, noting overuse could dilute their effectiveness like the constant use of “BREAKING NEWS” on TV, or anything we hear repeatedly to the point of tuning it out.
“Devices we have on our wrists or in our pocket are much more effective tools to communicating urgent messages — but the design of and frequency of them is the key to their longevity and success,” Grant said.
According to Carl Theobald, CEO of mobile marketing and communication automation firm FollowAnalytics, there is “absolute relevance” in government communication to citizens via text, but, like B2C applications, in order to have meaningful conversations and send relevant information in a timely manner, the government may have to consider technology to target messages based on context, as well as information about citizens themselves, instead of broad blasts based on location.
Joe Koller, product developer at brand marketing firm Slotright, too, likened government alerts to location-based notifications from small businesses and noted speed is important, but, in both cases, data can help “[crack] open a whole other level of security and privacy.”
“I know there’s potential fear of an Orwellian society that has access to your phone in which they see everything you see, but I think it’s checks and balances,” Theobald added. “I don’t think that’s going to happen – technology should be used to do good and can [do] a lot more than [it stands as it is] currently being used. The government has a long way to go.”
And let's not forget accuracy.
Look no further than the July 2016 tweet from the Dallas Police Department identifying a suspect in high-profile shootings and asking for help. The man, Mark Hughes, was innocent and nevertheless reportedly received thousands of death threats as a result of the tweet.
Of the text message alerts in particular, Grant said, “The agencies using these alerts have a significant responsibility to ensure the information they’re pushing out is completely accurate. Misuse has significant safety and privacy implications.”
Stephen Boidock, director of marketing and business development at digital agency Drumroll, agreed, adding, “This is the new milk carton, but at least back in the milk carton days, it took some time to process/print, which made sure people were more accurate with their information.”