Stephanie Busari: What Happens When Real News Is Dismissed As Fake?

Jun 23, 2017

Part 4 of the TED Radio Hour episode Truth And Lies.

About Stephanie Busari's TED Talk

Stephanie Busari discusses the flip-side of fake news: denying real news. She recounts the kidnapping of Nigeria's Chibok schoolgirls and how some Nigerians believed the news was a government hoax.

About Stephanie Busari

Stephanie Busari is CNN's digital and multimedia bureau head in Nigeria.

She was part of the CNN team that reported on the Boko Haram kidnapping of nearly 300 Chibok schoolgirls in northeast Nigeria. Her team won a Peabody Award for the network's coverage of the missing girls.

In April 2016, Busari obtained a video showing that some of the missing Chibok schoolgirls were still alive.

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It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz, and on the show today Truth and Lies. And what happens when people deny things that are objectively true, like this story you might remember from a couple of years ago?

Can you - can you introduce yourself, please?

STEPHANIE BUSARI: My name is Stephanie Busari. And I head up CNN's bureau in Lagos, Nigeria.

RAZ: On the night of April 14, 2014, something terrible happened that brought Stephanie to Nigeria.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Hundreds of young girls fast asleep in their beds are awakened by the sound of gunfire.

BUSARI: Two hundred and seventy-six schoolgirls were waiting to sit an exam in Chibok Government Secondary School in northeast Nigeria, Borno State. And overnight the Boko Haram trucks arrived and these men burst in. Some of them were dressed as army, the military. And at first they thought it was the army, but they soon quickly realized that these were men who didn't have good intentions for them. And they were all rounded up. Some of them were on the phone to their parents, so the parents could hear their daughters being kidnapped. And just packed them all up and gathered them into trucks and kidnapped them.

RAZ: Boko Haram is an insurgency group that's been terrorizing northeast Nigeria for the past decade. And the story of the kidnapped girls, it quickly spread all around the world.






BUSARI: There can only be one reaction to a story like this, and it's outrage, mass outrage.

RAZ: Politicians, celebrities, activist groups - they all banded together. A huge social media campaign emerged. And their rallying cry? Bring back our girls.


UNIDENTIFIED CROWD #2: (Chanting) Bring back our girls now and alive.

RAZ: Even Michelle Obama made a video pleading for their return.


MICHELLE OBAMA: My husband and I are outraged and heartbroken over the kidnapping of...

RAZ: Meanwhile, Stephanie Busari was sent to Nigeria by CNN to investigate the story. And what she discovered surprised her because it turned out a lot of Nigerians didn't think the story was true. They thought it was all a big hoax made up by the Nigerian government. Stephanie picks up the story from the TED stage.


BUSARI: Influential Nigerians were telling us at the time that we were naive, we didn't understand the political situation in Nigeria. But they also told us that the story of the Chibok girls was a hoax. Sadly, this hoax narrative has persisted, and there are still people in Nigeria today who believe that the Chibok girls were never kidnapped. For two years, inevitably, the news agenda moved on. And for two years we didn't hear much about the Chibok girls. Everyone presumed they were dead. But in April last year I was able to obtain this video that Boko Haram filmed as proof of life.

But before I could publish it, I had to travel to the northeast of Nigeria to talk to the parents to verify it. One of the mothers, when she watched the video, told me that if she could have reached into the laptop and pulled out her child from the laptop she would have done so. For those of you who are parents like myself in the audience, you can only imagine the anguish that that mother felt. This video would go on to kick-start negotiation talks with Boko Haram. And a Nigerian senator told me that because of this video they entered into those talks, because they had long presumed that the Chibok girls were dead.

RAZ: So here's what I don't get, Stephanie. Why did people think that this was a hoax when it was so obviously true? I mean, there was tons of evidence.

BUSARI: I think certainly people are very cynical here. They're distrustful because they've been lied to and cheated and, you know, they've been through successive waves of governments who have not necessarily had their best interests at heart. So the default stance definitely is cynicism and, you know, skepticism. But, you know, with the Chibok girls, that was for me the most widespread example of people dismissing something that was so blatantly true. I had never experienced that on such a wide scale.

RAZ: So this idea doesn't come from nowhere. I mean, it comes from a long history of governments basically lying. And people are like, what do you expect us to believe?


RAZ: So what do you think that people can do to - you know, to fight against this perception of fake news?

BUSARI: I just want people to be more careful about the information that they share, that they discover online because people are so quick to believe what - a piece of information that suits their agenda, that mirrors their worldview. They don't want to delve deeper to say, actually, you know what? Is this really true? Who is publishing this? Who has said this? And why do they say it? And what do they have to benefit from saying this? So, you know, do a bit more research. Don't just share it or take it at face value, you know?

RAZ: Are there still a lot of people in Nigeria who still think this story is a hoax?

BUSARI: Less and less so now. The girls have started to come back because of negotiation talks with Boko Haram and Nigerian government. And, you know, what can't be faked is the scenes of unbridled joy at the reunion with the parents and their daughters. One mother picked up her daughter and put her on her back. You know, like, how mothers carry babies on their back? She tried to put her on her back.

RAZ: Yeah.

BUSARI: And you cannot forget scenes like that. So people are seeing these things and they're saying, OK, hang on a second, you know, maybe it wasn't fake. So but, you know, even now people believe that it's fake, the Chibok girls story is fake. It's fake news. And I think people just believe what they want to believe in that instance.

RAZ: Stephanie Busari is a reporter for CNN in Lagos, Nigeria. You can hear her full talk at Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.