There is no single silver bullet solution to combatting the global crisis of coordinated disinformation campaigns, including organized efforts to smear quality journalism, panelists at the 2022 IPI World Congress Town Hall said on Thursday. The panel was moderated by renowned investigative journalist Azmat Khan, director of the Simon and June Li Center for Global Journalism.

“Disinformation is the story of our generation”, Washington Post Executive Editor Sally Buzbee said, underscoring the depth of a challenge for which newsroom leaders across the globe continue to seek an effective answer.

The phenomenon of disinformation itself is not new, panelists said. “But never in history have people been able to distribute it so widely and so effectively” thanks to the advent of new technologies, Michael Slackman, assistant managing editor for international at The New York Times, said. The distortionary force of online platforms also means that combating disinformation is not as simple as doing good journalism and getting the facts right, he added. “We don’t agree anymore about the what the facts are.”

It’s all created fertile ground for attacks on democratic institutions, including the news media. In countries like Pakistan, Dawn newspaper’s Zaffar Abbas told the Congress, politicians are now using the power of online trolls to attacks and discredit credible journalism in an organized manner. And even in countries like the U.S., where press freedom is relatively well protected, Buzbee described how online attacks on journalists have grown in intensity, with serious consequences for reporters’ well being. “Now matter how prepared you are, it’s always shocking when it happens“, she said.

So what can be done to protect journalists and fight back against disinformation that seeks to undermine independent journalism?

Several panelists highlighted the importance of new storytelling techniques, such as visual investigations, to push back with against false narratives with strong, compelling evidence. While these investigations undoubtedly bring powerful tools to bear, are they enough to withstand the proclivities of human nature? “Curing disinformation is like curing cancer in terms of complexity”, Kyiv Independent editor Olga Rudenko said. “People will choose to watch Netflix over reading a New York Times investigation proving that something they believe is wrong.”

Rudenko and many of the other panelists spoke about the importance of making disinformation itself the story. Musikilu Mojeed, editor-in-chief of Nigeria’s Premium Times, argued that the media “must commit more resources to reporting about these dis- and misinformation campaigns. We must investigate and expose them.” Buzbee agreed, saying that more resources should be spent on reporting how organized disinformation spreads and the damage it causes. “Don’t underplay the power of powerfully telling these stories of hate attacks”, she said. “Show what is happening, show where this battle is being fought.”

For his part, Slackman argued for the importance of education as a long-term strategy. “Every schoolkid needs to be educated in media literacy and reminded what citizenship is, that it’s not just about rights, but also responsibilities.“

Panelists also noted that when it comes to responding to online attacks on individual journalists, there’s disagreement over how and whether to respond – even inside newsrooms. The sharing of best practices is important, as is ensuring that there are resources available to support journalists targeted in online campaigns.

But there’s no doubt as to what’s at stake. “There is a campaign to destroy credible journalism”, Abbas said, noting that smear campaigns sow doubts in readers’ minds and push them away from good journalism. And self-censorship is a constant threat, too. Rudenko spoke about the particular challenges of doing journalism in a time of war and the danger that critical coverage may lead to accusations of being a “traitor”.

But while there are no simple answers to the challenge of disinformation – and darker clouds, like “deep fakes”, loom on the horizon – the IPI WoCo panel underscored the resilience and determination of newsrooms to keep looking and keep fighting to preserve the mission of independent journalism for democracy. “We’re not going to give up”, Buzbee said, “but it’s hard.”