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Zuckerberg injects himself into the vaccine controversy with his newborn

The Facebook CEO is increasingly speaking out on topics beyond the Internet and social media. And yes, people are taking notice.

Mark Zuckerberg waded into the vaccine controversy with a cute photo of his newborn at the doctor's office.
Mark Zuckerberg/Facebook

With a cute photo of his newborn daughter, and five accompanying words, Mark Zuckerberg waded into deeply divisive politics -- again.

Facebook's co-founder and CEO posted a photo to the social network on Friday, showing his newborn, Maxima, perched on his lap in a doctor's office. Little did she know that, sitting there in a multicolored bunting suit, she'd become a poster child for Silicon Valley's expanding influence in politics. This time the issue was childhood vaccines, a highly contentious matter that's enraged parents, politicians and health care experts.

"Doctor's visit -- time for vaccines!" Zuckerberg, 31, wrote below the picture of Max. By Tuesday, the image had more than 3.2 million likes and over 88,552 comments. It also had been shared 33,149 times. If you're not up on Facebook metrics, let me just say that's a lot.

Zuckerberg is using his corporate star status and the birth of his child to wade into one of the most heated public health care controversies in the US. Over the past year, antivaccine campaigners have protested mandatory inoculations, citing health concerns. Those claims, however, are largely based on a now-retracted study. The controversy has intensified even further amid outbreaks of diseases believed to have been eradicated.

By posting the photo of his daughter at the doctor's, Zuckerberg has taken a stand, albeit in the soft and subtle way Facebook photos allow for.

"It's not as in your face as it would seem, because it looks normal to people who use Facebook," said Jo-Ellen Pozner, an assistant business professor at the University of California, Berkeley. "That makes it powerful, and that's the real power of social media."

Facebook didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

Zuckerberg isn't the only tech executive using his position and wealth to weigh in on social issues. Apple CEO Tim Cook, head of one of the world's largest companies, has over the past year used his position to speak out on social issues such as gay rights. Marc Benioff, CEO of enterprise software maker Salesforce, has begun directing his wealth toward education, health care and human rights.

Zuckerberg has turned his Facebook profile into a soapbox. That's notable. On any given day, about 47.7 million Facebook followers check out what he has to say.

It makes sense Zuckerberg would choose to speak out now. Having a child can inspire a reassessment of one's life and the world we live in. That Zuckerberg's wife, Priscilla Chan, is a pediatrician may be a factor as well. In any case, fatherhood has given him an opportunity to share in Facebook activities that so many of the social network's more than 1.5 billion monthly users participate in, like posting baby photos and talking about family.

Until last year Zuckerberg kept a relatively low profile, posting photos of his dog, Beast, along with details about various initiatives at Facebook. He's also announced major acquisitions, including the $1 billion buyout of Instagram, the $2 billion acquisition of virtual reality firm Oculus and the whopping $19 billion payout for the WhatsApp messenger service.

Things started changing in 2015, when he launched his Year of Books campaign. Throughout the year, he encouraged his Facebook friends to read 23 books about topics ranging from health to culture to history. He organized public town halls, letting people send in questions about his business and other tech issues, which he then answered in real time. And he publicly interviewed India's Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, over live video published, of course, to Facebook.

But it was really last month, just before the holidays, that things amped up. That was when he announced both the birth of his daughter, on December 1, and that the couple had set up the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, an investment firm that will direct 99 percent of his massive wealth (estimated at more than $43 billion, according to Forbes) toward issues he cares about. That includes education, health care and Internet access.

So far, Zuckerberg's vaccine post has sparked debate. People both for and against vaccinations have commented on his photo and written blog posts in response. California became a center of the controversy last year, when its governor signed a strict law requiring children in daycares as well as private and public schools to be vaccinated, with few exceptions.