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Does a ‘Help Us Catch a Terrorist’ Text Help or Just Cause Panic?

Authorities are embracing emergency text alerts to help catch suspects—but critics say they may cause mass panic and encourage racial profiling.

By Francie Diep


A picture of Ahmad Khan Rahami, the man believed to be responsible for the explosion in Manhattan on Saturday night and an earlier bombing in New Jersey, is displayed at a news conference. (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

After a weekend that saw two explosionsin New York and New Jersey, authorities sent a terse text message to locals Monday morning, enlisting their help in catching the suspected perpetrator. “WANTED: Ahmad Khan Rahami, 28-yr-old male. See media for pic. Call 9–1–1 if seen,” it read. The message had been sent using the nation’s Wireless Emergency Alerts system, which contacts people on their cell phones to warn them of imminent emergencies — such as hurricanes and flash floods — or to recruit help looking for child abductors in their area.

The Rahami alert is believed to be the first time the system has been usedto recruit citizens of a major city to find a dangerous suspect, the New York Times reported yesterday. And it won’t be the last if New York City’s mayor has anything to do with it: “This is a tool we will use again in the future,” Bill de Blasio told reporters during a press conference Monday. “This is a modern approach that really engaged a whole community.”

Nevertheless, some worry that the lack of detail in WEA messages — limited to 90 characters due to technological reasons—could confuse or panic recipients, even lead to the harassment of innocent, brown-skinned men in the vicinity. “By encouraging people to go to the media to look at a picture, what if someone had identified the wrong person?” Bandana Kar, a geographer at the University of Southern Mississippi who has studied the WEA system, asked the Times.

What does the research say? Scientists have conducted a few studies looking at how people respond to WEA messages.The upshot: There’s still much to learn, but the existing results suggest text alerts can both alarm some recipients and re-assure others.

There’s still much to learn, but the existing results suggest text alerts can both alarm some recipients and re-assure others.

One study of WEA texts suggests that people can find them scary and unhelpful. Communications researchers at various American universities created simulated WEA text messages that warned of a nuclear explosion in Denver, then asked local study volunteers what they thought of the messages. In one typical response, a volunteer said,“To me, it just doesn’t seem complete. It seems like just enough to terrify you, but not to really help you do anything.”

Nevertheless, the Rahami message did offer two promising action items for recipients: See media for pic and Call 9–1–1 if seen. It’s not unreasonable to think people would take that advice and check news outlets for Rahami’s photograph: Research shows that, after getting a warning message, most people check other mediums for more information, a behavior social scientists call “milling.”

Other research shows that, when authoritiesask for help via short, public messages, it can re-assure the public.When officials ask for aid in a criminal investigation over social media — as they did over Twitter in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing — it creates “opportunities for the public to collaborate and assist through a backchannel communication tool at a period of heightened stress,” as sociologists put it in one 2014 study. In other words: Short text warnings may empower people at a time when they’re otherwise feeling anxious.

In the end, it’s unclear whether the Rahami message led to his apprehension. Police found Rahami within a few hours of the WEA message’s broadcast, after receiving a “routine trespassing call,” ABC News reports. The owner of a bar noticed a man sleeping in the hallway of his establishment and called the police, and the responding officer recognized Rahami.