Two years ago, the acclaimed journalism think-tank Pew Research Center released a study that revealed nearly two-thirds of Americans got most, or at least some, of their news and information from social media websites.
That results were unsurprising — with the proliferation of websites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube that allow anyone armed with a computer or phone and an Internet connection to say whatever they want, whenever they want and make whatever claim they want, it stood to reason that the millions of post published to those websites and others would have some kind of news value.
More surprising, perhaps, was that nearly one-half of those surveyed by Pew admitted they assumed news posted to social media websites were inaccurate, while around one-third of those surveyed said articles, blog posts and videos posted on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and elsewhere created a sense of confusion about current events.
While social media sites have been blamed across the board for their inability to handle the vast amount of false news that spreads on their platforms — and a select few have been directly blamed for their unwillingness to even bother to try until very recently — no two sites have faced the wrath of journalists, industry experts and political junkies more than Facebook and YouTube: Since the 2016 election, Facebook has been blamed for allowing Russian operatives and others to launch pages that attracted millions of followers where fake news was posted and quickly went viral — something political analysts said swayed in heavy favor toward then-candidate and current president Donald Trump, something the social media company admits — while YouTube has struggled to curb the amount of videos laden with conspiracy theories that proliferate and attract large numbers of views.
For years, Facebook executives said the issue of fake news wasn’t their problem, and they refused to moderate false content posted on their platform, saying they were offering people an avenue for free expression and didn’t want to be in the news moderation industry. But in recent days, Facebook has changed its tune after a large number of advertisers either threatened to pull advertisement money from its platform or actually pulled their funding.
YouTube, operated by Alphabet as a subsidiary of search giant Google, has at least tried to address the growing problem of conspiracy theories and other forms of false information on its platform. In 2018, it announced it would crack down on fake news and conspiracy theories after its algorithm was shown to surface those videos alongside legitimate ones published by news partners like CNN, NBC News and Fox News. But the following year, multiple reports revealed that YouTube’s conspiracy theory problem hadn’t gone away — and, in some ways, had gotten worse.
Those are problems that Daniel Barreto, the co-founder and CEO of Haystack TV, says he and his team have been thinking about over the last few years as the amount of fake news and conspiracy theory videos increase across social media platforms. In an interview with The Desk last week, Barreto said the convincing nature of fake news videos that surface and spread on sites like Facebook and YouTube are reflective of consumer confusion over what’s real and what isn’t as national cable news outlets like CNN, Fox and MSNBC push people toward political extremes with their opinion programming and discussion panels.
“We thought that was very dangerous and scary, which is why we focused on brand diversity, more resources and local news,” Barreto said.
Launched in 2014, Haystack News (then called Haystack TV, which is still the name of the company) offers a highly-curated selection of local and national news clips from a handful of nationally-recognized content partners. Likened as a kind of “Pandora, but for local news,” Haystack News by default offers local news clips to users based on their geographic area and availability of local news partners in their region, then allows users to select topics like business news, political news, entertainment and science that is distributed by national partners.
The decision to make local news front-and-center within the Haystack News app was deliberate. “Local news is the most-trusted source of news in the United States,” Barreto said, citing industry research that showed more people found information delivered by local news sources like broadcast outlets and community newspapers to be more reliable, informative and reflective of their interests than national and international news sources.
Perhaps no one is in a better position to capitalize on that trust: To date, Haystack News has agreements with a handful of major local news broadcasters — including the Disney-ABC Television Group, CBS Local Stations, Cox Media Group, Gray Television, Meredith Corporation and E.W. Scripps — that provides news clips from over 300 television stations across the country. Those agreements means the majority of American users have at least one or two TV stations serving their local market that is also making content available on Haystack News.
For national and international news, Haystack News has forged partnerships with Newsy, Bloomberg, CBS News, ABC News, the Associated Press and a few others, curating hard-news, nuts-and-bolts reporting that sticks to the facts of the story — viewers typically won’t see commentary, debates or panel discussions on Haystack News.
“One of the things that [Haystack’s] founders struggled with was how media outlets were shifting more toward the extremes,” Barreto said. And the company’s founders were cognizant of how user-generated content posted to sites like Facebook and YouTube were — and still are — contributing to the problem of widespread misinformation.
“We like having diverse and multiple perspectives. We’re adding more sources all the time,” Barreto said. “[But] our mission is not to entertain the world. It’s not to bring you the user-generated content, the funny stories — what social media is basically doing, our mission is to empower independent thinkers.”
Barreto said advisors have urged the company to consider offering space for user-generated content to live alongside fact-based stories on Haystack News. That could put Haystack News in a competitive position to break news stories earlier based on eyewitness photos and videos and to have humorous antics go viral — something social media companies do very well through by virtue of their platforms being open to just about anyone at any time.
But Barreto said that is the exact opposite of what Haystack is trying to do — build a reputable platform that people can turn to for fact-based, reliable local and national news.
“We’re scared about [adding user-generated content] because that goes more in the direction of social media,” Barreto said. “We’re avoiding that. We just have a limited list of trusted resources on both sides.”
For those same reasons, Haystack has not focused on adding partnerships from major cable news outlets, either.
“We’d love to have a Fox News and MSNBC, but one of the things we’ve noticed is they like having users in their silos and controlling the user experience,” Barreto said. “They’re not big fans of platforms of ours.”
Haystack’s users don’t seem to be missing them, either: In a recent survey, users said they’d like to see fact-based content from CNN, MSNBC and Fox News, but found it was less important overall than having reliable information from local news providers.
“[Users] said they would enjoy having that, but they weren’t desperate about it,” Barreto said.
Some cable news content is available via Haystack, repurposed from their official YouTube channels via an API. Redistributing verifiable news content posted to YouTube was common in Haystack’s early days, as it was for competitors like Pluto TV and Xumo. But as Haystack has grown, its shifted away from that model, opting not to serve those clips to users by default (instead, users have to seek them out), and in future versions of Haystack News, the YouTube API will be phased out entirely.
Instead, Haystack News is zeroing in on current event trends and is working to offer news clips from its official content partners based on what’s important in the moment. In March, the company experimented with a dedicated section on its app for Super Tuesday coverage, offering live cut-ins from content partners ABC, CBS and Newsy when candidates declared victory or conceded. A few weeks later, Haystack launched another dedicated section for coverage of the coronavirus pandemic, and in May the company started offering Roku users an interactive scrolling ticker that curated up-to-the-minute breaking news information.
These experiments seem to be working: Two weeks ago, Haystack News executives said the company had seen a 145 percent increase in viewership across its platform this year compared to last year (the company declined to provide specific data, including monthly average users, to The Desk). Company insiders said a renewed interest in news brought on by the American political landscape — after all, this is an election year — and the ongoing COVID-19 health crisis was partially responsible for the increase in users.
But another likely reason is Haystack’s distribution model: Its free app is available on a large range of devices, including smartphones (Apple’s iOS and Android), tablets and smart TVs manufactured by Samsung, LG, TCL, Sony and others. Haystack News is also available to users of streaming TV devices made by Roku, Apple, Amazon and Google as well as the Android TV operating system. And all of its content is accessible on PCs and Macs via the Haystack TV website.
On every platform, the service is free, supported in large part by advertisements. Barreto said revenue from ad breaks is split evenly between the company and its content partners.
“Our business model is very simple: We are 100 percent aligned with our publishing partners,” Barreto said. “We do a revenue share with them, and the more we make, the more they make.”
Right now, the company is focused on expanding its content offerings and partnerships — it recently started offering short-form documentary content through its iOS app, something Haystack News is experimenting with in limited capacity, according to a source with knowledge of the company’s mission — while making enough money to appease its content partners and investors.
Tackling the fake news problem on competing platforms wasn’t, and still isn’t, core to Haystack’s mission, but its business strategy is offering a serendipitous solution: Not once in the six years since Haystack launched have its human curators (currently, it has two) or algorithms been blamed for giving conspiracy theories, deep fakes or other forms of false information an audience.
“It’s something we’ve been talking about since the beginning,” Barreto said, “but it’s something that’s more obvious now.”
Editor’s note: This story was updated on July 4 to include additional information about how Haystack obtains and delivers content to users.