Chickenpox Parties are the Facebook Scandal Nobody is Talking About

While the public worries about Facebook’s leadership, the platform is aiding and abetting the harm of children by harboring anti-vaxxers and chickenpox parties.

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The chickenpox vaccine is 90 percent effective at protecting children from the chickenpox varicella virus. That means children no longer need to suffer through a week of itchy, painful rash, fever and scabbing or risk possible permanent scarring, encephalitis, bacterial infection, and toxic shock syndrome. Still, many do. And an increasing number of children face a direct threat to their health because Facebook refuses to shut down the anti-vaccine groups that have become a means for radicalized and ill-informed parents to seek out infections for their kids. Even as Facebook stands accused of ignoring Russian attacks on American democracy an engaging in all manner of skullduggery to limit blowback, the social media behemoth is helping to arrange “Chickenpox Parties,” one of which is bound to lead to the death of a child.

Yes, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg tried to cover-up their failure to keep foreign agents from influencing the 2016 elections. And it’s awful that the company reacted to that scandal by going on the offensive rather than solving the problem. But it is also terrible — and Facebook is big enough to multi-task in a morally irresponsible way — that the platform’s terms of use allow for parents to find like-minded extremists and arrange for their children to get unnecessarily ill.

Facebook, it seems, is fine abetting harm to children for fear of offending a constituency of hellbent conspiracists.

At the center of the issue is the existence of groups and pages related to regional chickenpox parties. These groups help anti-vax parents find a way to expose their unvaccinated child via varicella infected children in a “fun” kind of way. Think of it as a “plague date.” A simple There are groups in Texas, Alaska, New Hampshire, and Virginia, all with hundreds of members. There are also pages like “Natural Immunity for the Chicken Pox,” which spreads vaccine misinformation and has nearly 2,000 followers.

That’s a huge deal, particularly considering anti-vax communities that pout everyone at risk. For instance, despite the fact that the varicella vaccine has decreased chickenpox outbreaks by 70 percent, according to the CDC, 36 students at a North Carolina private school recently contracted the viruses in the states worst outbreak in over 20 years. Why did those kids get sick? Anti-vax parents.

It’s bad enough that parents are purposefully infecting their kids at a time when an effective vaccine is available — potentially setting them up for shingles later in life — without Facebook exacerbating the problem. Facebook’s decision to look the other way is unconscionable. And make no mistakes, it is a decision. The “Natural Immunity” page has been live since 2010. Us New and World Report wrote about Pox Party organizers on Facebook as early as 2015. The social network is perfectly capable of shutting this down. Facebook is very aggressive in its policing of pedophiles and child pornography. The decision to stop there feels very arbitrary. Should Zuckerberg, a father himself, be against any harm coming to children?

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Consider for a second, a comment from the moderators of Natural Immunity for the Chicken Pox in response to a Facebook user pointing out the risk of blindness and scars. “Blindness is a possibility from getting anything in your eye,” they write. “Scaring is a possibility from falling.” But most parents would be loathe to throw things into their kids’ eyes or push them down the stairs. And it would be unlikely that Facebook would willingly harbor groups actively encouraging parents to throw things into their kids’ eyes and or push them down stairs. That would be abuse and Facebook would, not doubt, refuse to stand for it.

But Facebook stands for anti-vaxxers infecting their kids. That’s a scandal. And it’s a scandal that needs to be discussed even as other Facebook scandals make splashier headlines. It’s one thing for Facebook to try to protect itself from bad press, it another thing entirely for Facebook to fail to protect children when it absolutely can, and should.