On Tuesday, President Donald Trump amplified a conspiracy theory from the far-right news channel One America News Network.
In a Twitter post that mentioned OANN, Trump smeared a 75-year-old protester who was pushed to the ground by Buffalo police officers last week and subsequently hospitalized in serious condition. Trump suggested that the protester, Martin Gugino, was “an antifa provocateur” who was trying to scan police equipment with his phone and “fell harder than he was pushed.”
“Could be a set up?” Trump wrote.
The tweet, which drew criticism even from some conservative commentators, seemed to echo an OANN story by a reporter with ties to Russian state media who claimed that Gugino’s injury was a “false flag provocation.” It’s the latest of several conspiracy theories the network has peddled. OANN has also suggested that the novel coronavirus was engineered as a biological weapon in a University of North Carolina lab, and that the Chinese government was collaborating with George Soros, the Clintons, and others to use the coronavirus for population control.
But Trump isn’t the only one giving OANN a megaphone.
On Roku players and smart TVs, One America News enjoys prominent promotion as part of The Roku Channel, a free app that had 36 million viewers last quarter. There, OANN offers an offshoot of its cable channel called OAN Encore, with much of the same news and commentary.
On my app’s Roku Channel, OAN Encore gets a big promotional thumbnail on the app’s main menu in a section for live TV channels, sometimes ahead of mainstream outlets such as Reuters and USA Today (when asked, Roku would not provide any detail about when and where OAN Encore appears on this screen). It also appears in The Roku Channel’s “News” section and is part of a new live TV channel guide that mimics the grid menu on cable boxes. Click through to the news section, and you’ll see OAN Encore along with 12 other live news sources, including Now This, The Young Turks, and ABC News. That’s a handful compared to the hundreds of news sources available through Roku’s main channel store.
While OANN’s tie-in with Roku isn’t new, it’s becoming all the more jarring as Trump pushes more of the channel’s conspiracy theories into the spotlight. OANN has a “miniscule audience” on cable, according to the The New York Times, but on Roku it has a huge platform for getting noticed, and it enjoys an air of legitimacy that doesn’t apply to random videos on Facebook or YouTube.
How Roku promotes One America News
On most streaming devices, OANN offers a stand-alone app that allows users to subscribe to its online news channel for $5 per month. This app is available on Roku along with Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV devices, and Android TV devices, and users would most likely have to search for it by name. By comparison, The Roku Channel puts OAN’s content in front of millions of users, whether they’re looking for it or not.
The Roku Channel isn’t some minor feature, either. The company has touted the app as a centerpiece of its advertising business, which brought in $740 million last year.
In other ad-supported apps, Roku merely gets a share of the ad space (or “inventory,” in industry jargon), but it’s in complete control of the ad inventory on The Roku Channel. This allows the company to target ads more effectively. Last quarter, Roku said that 36 million people accessed The Roku Channel, and its viewing hours increased 100% year-over-year, outpacing the growth of the Roku platform as a whole.
“The Roku Channel has proven central to the Roku platform, bringing considerable value to consumers, content partners, and advertisers,” Roku said in its most recent letter to shareholders.
Roku will not say how popular OAN Encore is compared to other content inside The Roku Channel, but live TV in general has clearly been a draw. Roku has steadily brought more live-streaming channels to its lineup, and just recently added more than 30 new ones.
OANN isn’t the only right-wing news source on the platform, as NewsmaxTV is available as well (Fox News does not make any content available inside The Roku Channel). OANN, however, is far more extreme than either of those sources, which may explain why Trump gravitates toward it.
A hands-off approach
Tricia Mifsud, a Roku spokeswoman, says via email that the company does not control or curate content within the linear feeds in The Roku Channel. Still, she did not comment on how Roku decides which sources are available in The Roku Channel to begin with.
“We operate a platform with a wide selection of entertainment and content with diverse points of view,” Mifsud says. “While we seek to maintain an environment for the exchange of information and diverse ideas, we reserve the right to remove a channel that has the potential to cause harm to our platform.”
While the company’s distribution agreement for developers prohibits content that contains “false, irrelevant, or misleading information,” Mifsud added that Roku is not removing OANN from its lineup at this time. OAN Encore does not carry all of the same content as the cable channel, so it’s possible that the baseless claims against Martin Gugino have not appeared there.
Roku has previously faced an outcry for how it moderates content on its platform. In January 2019, Roku allowed Alex Jones’s Infowars app onto its platform, even as other platforms were banning Jones’s app for peddling conspiracy theories. In response to criticism, Roku defended itself as a “neutral platform” that does not “curate or censor based on viewpoint,” noting that Infowars had not promoted anything illegal or violated third-party rights.
Roku quickly relented in that case, however, saying that it “heard from concerned parties and [has] determined that the channel should be removed from our platform.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify that not all users see OAN Encore displayed prominently on their Roku Channel home screen and provide additional context about the number of news sources available. The screenshots were updated to show what the Roku Channel home page looks like upon app launch.