South Korea’s Yoon warns of tech threat to democracy at summit

By Thomson Reuters Mar 17, 2024 | 10:59 PM

By Ju-min Park and Jack Kim

SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol on Monday called fake news and disinformation based on AI and digital technology threats to democracy, as his country hosted a gathering of senior global officials including from Britain, the EU and the United States.

Speaking at the opening of the Summit for Democracy, Yoon said countries had a duty to share experiences and wisdom so that artificial intelligence and technology could be employed to promote democracy.

Technological disparity among countries is a major challenge, Yoon said, describing it as a root case of how some countries fall behind in economic prosperity and fail to make progress on democracy.

“Fake news and disinformation based on artificial intelligence and digital technology not only violates individual freedom and human rights but also threatens democratic systems,” Yoon said.

South Korea is hosting the third Summit for Democracy conference, an initiative of U.S. President Joe Biden aimed at discussing ways to stop democratic backsliding and erosion of rights and freedoms.

Digital threats to democracy, and how technology can promote democracy and universal human rights, are expected to be the main agenda of the three-day meetings.

“As authoritarian and repressive regimes deploy technologies to undermine democracy and human rights, we need to ensure that technology sustains and supports democratic values and norms,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the summit.

Like-minded governments and their people are working together to promote free and fair elections, Blinken said, noting that safeguarding democracy was a collective effort.

Neither Blinken nor Yoon mentioned any countries or leaders by name.

European Commission Vice-President for Values and Transparency Vera Jourova said 2024 is an election year around the globe and cited threats such as disinformation campaigns from the Kremlin among other actors.

The Kremlin has repeatedly denied accusations of spreading false or misleading information.

Hours before the summit started, North Korea fired several short-range ballistic missiles into the sea for the first time in two months in its latest show of force.

The conference also kicked off just after Russian President Vladimir Putin was declared victor in a record post-Soviet landslide in a presidential election on Sunday.

The result means Putin, who rose to power in 1999, is set to start a new six-year term that will see him overtake Josef Stalin and become Russia’s longest-serving leader in more than 200 years if he completes it.

A White House National Security Council spokesperson criticised the election and said they were “obviously not free nor fair given how Mr. Putin has imprisoned political opponents and prevented others from running against him”.

Putin told reporters he regarded Russia’s election as democratic and said protests organised by supporters of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who died in an Arctic prison last month, against him had no effect on the election’s outcome.

The summit is also being attended by British Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden, who said democracy faced threats on multiple fronts, including cyberattackers disrupting campaigns, populists embracing falsehoods, and “autocrats holding sham elections.”

Speaking at a separate session, Blinken said Washington was releasing the first guidance of its kind for tech companies to help prevent attacks on human rights defenders online.

(Reporting by Jack Kim; Editing by Ed Davies and Gerry Doyle)