Despite a recent political ad ban from Twitter and new limitations from Google, Facebook has yet to back down from its ‘anything goes’ policy, which allows politicians to tell lies and target different groups of people with vastly different messages. Instead, the social network has merely hinted at considering a change, without providing any details on how likely that is or what changes could come.
“We are looking at different ways we might refine our approach,” Facebook tells Fortune in an emailed statement.
Advertising experts say the reasons Facebook hasn’t budged could range from its desire to keep ads auction prices up to fearing more backlash for policing mishaps to creating a frustrating experience for users. But ultimately, Facebook has more reasons to make at least some changes than it does to stand pat, experts say.
“It does seem like they have every reason to make a big move, and there’s almost no reason not to,” says Grace Briscoe, vice president at ad-tech platform Centro.
As the 2020 U.S. presidential election nears, Facebook faces increasing pressure from the public, political candidates, and the government. In 2016, Facebook was blamed for allowing data from at least 87 million accounts to be harvested by analytics firm Cambridge Analytica. That ultimately led to Russian groups targeting users with fake news, and the social network paying $5 billion in fines. Since then, Facebook has come under continuous scrutiny for fueling hate speech, misinformation, and political extremism.
Facebook declined to comment on whether it plans to make any changes to its current ads policy in time for the 2020 election. But people familiar with the matter say the company is considering raising the minimum number of people a political advertiser can target from 100 to a couple thousand, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Publicly, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has said that the backlash the company receives over political ads far outweighs the revenue they generate. But that doesn’t mean the decision to stand by its current policy isn’t, at least in part, financially motivated, says Pinar Yildirim, assistant professor of marketing for The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.
Yildirim has specialized in research about social media, advertising targeting, and has even previously conducted research with Facebook. Major limitations on political advertisements on Facebook could potentially lower prices for advertisers that currently have to bid for ads, she says. And lower prices mean less revenue across Facebook’s advertising service, its main source of revenue.
“This whole ecosystem is affected when you shutdown targeting for some,” she says. “If an advertiser pulls out, that’s less competition for others.”
Facebook’s political ad conundrum: Will versus skill
Facebook historically has not been the best at policing its service right out of the gate. The company previously allowed the Christchurch shooting in New Zealand to live stream and be shared among users before it was able to detect it and remove the videos. It also previously struggled to stop the spread of hate speech in Myanmar, which fueled mass genocide of a Muslim minority.
Adding more rules means adding another category for Facebook to monitor. That could result in Facebook overlooking some ads that violate the policy, being manipulated by bad actors finding loopholes in the rules, and even tying up legitimate ads that get erroneously tagged as problematic.
“What we see more often are false positives,” Briscoe says about advertising campaigns she’s run for clients. “Like a utility company talking about renewable energy improvement could get flagged as environmental policy, then get tied up in an appeals process for days. Now the client is days late on the campaign.”
Targeted ads improve the user experience, and that could be one of the main reasons Facebook is hesitant to change anything, says Garrett Johnson, assistant professor of marketing at Boston University’s Questom School of Business. If Facebook limits targeting, it will also feed a lot of people irrelevant ads—the opposite of a good user experience, he adds.
“If you don’t allow forms of targeting, you end up with a lot of waste,” Johnson says.
How Twitter and Google changed gears
So how exactly are Google and Twitter going about their new policies, if all of these complications exist?
Twitter, which outright banned political ads, said its new rules don’t change how it already operates, given that it regularly is enforcing its community standards.
Using a combination of humans and artificial intelligence, along with a system that requires political advertisers to get certified before running a campaign, Twitter’s advertising technology is constantly being updated to improve its ability to identify violations.
While Twitter has admitted it will likely make some mistakes, the company often has to make tough calls on suspected violations all the time. For example, it regularly has to decide whether an account is imitating a person, a violation of its policy, or is a parody account, which is allowed on its service.
There will always be tough calls, but Twitter says it believes it shouldn’t allow advertisers to buy political reach. Experts say the bold stance was likely an easy position for Twitter to take, given that politicians don’t consider the service a big part of their marketing strategy. Therefore, Twitter makes very little revenue on the ads.
Meanwhile, Google said in January it will implement new limits on how political advertisers can target users. Those limits restrict targeting to age, gender, and general location.
This means that political advertisers, which also have to be certified by Google, will not be able to target people based on whether they are registered voters, their political party, or their record of support for specific candidates or issues. Google declined to comment on how it plans to enforce its new rules.
The change will likely send a lot of voters elsewhere for political ads, says Briscoe.“You might end up spending two or three times as much money just to reach a very small portion of people who are actually eligible to vote for you,” she says of smaller political advertisers.
But Facebook is a big part of the strategy for most political campaigns, and there’s currently no equal alternative. So any change to its political advertising will likely ruffle feathers. The Trump campaign has already begun grousing at even the thought of changes.
If Facebook does nothing, people will be upset, Johnson says. Similarly, if it does something, people will be upset. So, he adds, the company might as well do something.
“They have tried to stand for the principle of free speech, but the political and social reality of the situation is [that] it comes off tone deaf,” he says. Hiding from the problem behind the concept of free speech won’t make it go away.
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