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Competing with Content and Section 230

User-generated content (UGC) can give a firm a significant competitive advantage but also presents a dangerous competitive liability if not managed and distributed appropriately. The current case addressing Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 before the United States Supreme Court (SCOTUS) exacerbates the liability of UGC. Still, smart companies can not only mitigate risk but can also use it to outsmart competitors.

Section 230 - Supreme Court with Social Logos

Context

Third-party or user-generated content has been the digital fuel for social platforms, search engines, discussion boards, and web forums for many years. This approach includes companies including Google, Bing, YouTube, TikTok, Facebook, and Instagram. UGC can drive substantial web traffic through search, sharing, and other forms of audience engagement. It also provides sources of revenue through the consumption of the content, the monetization of user data for ad targeting, compensation for online purchases, and more. Most of the time, it works well for the platform and the users. Skeptical? How often have you gone to YouTube to fix something or found product reviews via Google?

With the reliance on third parties for content comes brand risk and liability. Fortunately, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 mitigates that risk to social platforms by providing legal safeguards, effectively ensuring liability protection for user-generated content. Unfortunately, we’ve learned that some content is malicious, and some of the algorithms that propagate it don’t understand that. Currently, SCOTUS is reviewing two cases, Gonzalez v. Google and Twitter v. Taamneh, that challenge the protections of Section 230. This judicial action follows terrorist incidents allegedly linked to search and social platforms.  At the core is whether algorithmic recommendations pierce the liability shield. Tom Wheeler, Visiting Fellow of Governance Studies, Center for Technology Innovation at The Brookings Institution, cogently lays out the case in this piece.

Whether or not new boundaries are drawn around legal liability, brand risk still remains a competitive liability.

Competitive Implications

  • Consider the role that UGC plays in your competitive strategy and go-to-market. It’s not a matter of “Hey, let’s do UGC.” It requires clear differentiation, community development, and complex, scalable, secure infrastructure. And lots of patience because it takes time and capital if done correctly.
  • Ensure the UGC content sticks on your platform and doesn’t end up repurposed unless brand-respectfully embedded in other places, including websites and social media. Your competitive advantage is the content portfolio.
  • Work the ecosystem to help develop content producers, advertisers, and subscribed audiences. Understand that your competitive advancements will be tied to yield some control, as counterintuitive as that may sound.
  • Share content on other platforms, but ensure it follows a coherent and consistent editorial calendar and distribution schedule. Uploading content randomly undermines your credibility and can cast doubt in the mind of prospects, customers, and partners.

Competitive Actions

  • Revisit your terms of use agreement. Make sure the content guidelines, moderation, and user behavior are clear. Update it with stricter guidelines. Either way, it’ll need to be reviewed by the legal team.
  • Ensure all platforms and other digital participants agree to the updated guidelines. This group includes both content creators and other audience members.
  • Qualify and identify participants. Though it’s tough to create anonymity, bad things happen more when bad people “wear masks.”
    Identify non-compliant content and comments and remove them, possibly banishing the irresponsible users. The identification process should be done both digitally (a good use of AI) and with community flagging.
  • If monetizing, keep brand sponsors apprised of activity, sharing engagement as well as appropriateness for brand equity and safety. Transparency around content performance and brand safety is not a liability; it’s a competitive advantage.
  • Continually revisit your algorithmic recommendation engines and adjust based on engagement, including comments and sentiment.
  • Review the outcome of the Section 230 cases regardless of the outcomes. Whether or not new boundaries are drawn around legal liability, brand risk still remains a competitive liability.

Transparency around content performance and brand safety is not a liability; it’s a competitive advantage.

Background

For many years, I ran sales and marketing for a successful company that used data science to analyze UGC for reporting, brand safety, audience growth, and ad targeting on YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. I covered the concept of managing UGC and brand safety in several books on the competitive application of video content and YouTube for brands.

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