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Facebook has hired former NYT public editor Liz Spayd as a consultant in a ‘transparency’ effort

She has also worked at the Washington Post and Columbia Journalism Review as a top editor.

Facebook consultant Liz Spayd
Can Liz Spayd help Facebook share more about itself?

Facebook has recently hired former New York Times public editor Liz Spayd on a consulting basis to help manage the company’s efforts around giving users more “transparency” into how the massive social network makes decisions.

A Facebook spokesperson said that her job would be to help expand early moves to chronicle what it does related to everything from terrorism to fake news to privacy. Her charge is basically to move the company out of its comfort zone in disclosing how it works internally.

Translation: To get Facebook to share more about itself.

The company has been trying to do that a lot more since it was widely criticized for enabling the proliferation of so-called “fake news” during last fall’s U.S. presidential election. Even before that, it was wrangling with allegations that the company suppressed conservative content from its trending news section, a troubling accusation considering Facebook has become one of the world’s largest news sources.

As part of its effort to look and feel more open to its user base, Facebook has talked a lot about its efforts to fight fake news, and recently launched a blog post series titled “Hard Questions,” where the company talks a bit about hot-button issues like hate speech or terrorism. CEO Mark Zuckerberg has also been traveling the country meeting with regular people in America’s heartland to better understand life outside of the Silicon Valley bubble.

Zuckerberg has talked publicly and also wrote a massive blog post about Facebook’s broader mission and responsibility to use technology like artificial intelligence to help fight things like fake news, but also encourage more people to have conversations about controversial topics.

He and other Facebook execs have been debating internally how best to communicate this and more, although it is unlikely we will get the down and dirty on every decision that impacts users.

(Suggestion: One thing we could use some transparency on is how Facebook seems to be so specific when suggesting people for you to connect with.)

Still, Facebook plans to expand from the “Hard Questions” blog to do more, including posts from guest commentators who disagree with the company (egads!) and how things like its algorithm work. It is also considering related events, studies and more.

While not an exact comparison, since it is more limited, Google has tried to do similar things related to its news offerings, such as the Google News Lab. That unit works on things like data journalism and immersive storytelling.

Spayd is an interesting choice for the job. She had been the latest to pen an independent column about the newsgathering process at the news organization, representing its readers. But the position was eliminated altogether by the Times brass earlier this summer.

Spayd has also been one of the more controversial public editors to have served at the Times, attracting criticism for a number of columns. She noted that in her last column:

I leave this job plenty aware that I have opinions — especially about partisan journalism — that don’t always go over well with some of the media critics in New York and Washington. I’m not prone to worry much about stepping in line with conventional thinking. I try to hold an independent voice, to not cave to outside — or inside — pressure, and to say what I think, hopefully backed by an argument and at least a few facts. In this job, I started to know which columns would land like a grenade, and I’m glad to have stirred things up. I’ll wear it like a badge.

She arrived at Facebook only weeks ago and is working in a consulting role from its Silicon Valley HQ and also from New York, where she lives.

Interestingly, she is unlikely to write a lot on Facebook’s blog, said the spokesperson, who noted she is not meant to have a highly visible role — such as recently hired former TV journalist Campbell Brown, who was hired as the company’s head of news partnerships in January.

Instead, Spayd’s role will be as an outsider who is inside, one who pushes boundaries at Facebook.

Presumably, we’ll see how hard she is allowed to do that in the months to come. It is clear that Facebook is also doing this to be more thoughtful about its major impact on society, but also because it looks good to do so.

(Full disclosure: Spayd and Kara Swisher worked together at the Washington Post’s business section almost 25 years ago, where Swisher was a nascent but already annoying reporter and Spayd was a patient top editor. Remarkably, they still get along.)

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