Operation regulation: Strengthening Latin America’s AI governance

Despite the challenges AI poses to democratic stability in Latin America, the region lacks stringent regulation. To bolster AI governance, the EU, a leader in AI regulation, should lend a helping hand

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Recent elections in Latin America have underscored the dangerous impact of algorithms and AI, particularly generative AI, at the voting booth. During the 2023 Colombian regional election, campaigns were marred with misinformation funnelled across social media, with the emergence of AI-generated media content – or deepfakes – aimed at undermining candidates’ political campaigns. This raised alarm bells among fact-checking groups like ColombiaCheck, as the widespread and convincingly realistic recordings enabled by generative AI’s mimicry proved too difficult and time consuming to debunk before some damage was already done. A similar hoax sprung up during Argentina’s 2023 election, where candidate Patricia Bullrich was the target of AI-generated audios slandering her minister of economy. In the recent Mexican election, a deepfake audio of candidate Claudia Sheinbaum mimicked her criticising President Andrés Manuel López and acknowledging fraud in the polls.

Political actors are undoubtedly taking advantages of AI, for example, by leveraging its ability to “microtarget” voters. This is raising significant privacy and ethical issues. Misinformation, targeted ads, and the resulting “filter bubbles” are skyrocketing, contributing to political polarisation and manipulation of voter choices. Alongside this, there is widespread use of AI-driven bots and cyborgs, whose objective is to imitate humans and interact with targeted media users to promote the distribution of misinformation. Deepfakes and bots plagued Brazil’s 2022 presidential election. In Costa Rica’s 2022 presidential election, over 11 per cent of social media posts originated from fake accounts, with this figure spiking to between 19-21 per cent in the weeks before the vote. 

AI-driven technology operates without stringent regulations in Latin America, enabling political actors to disseminate vast amounts of misinformation to the electorate with impunity

This is in itself unremarkable. What sets the case of Latin America apart, however, is the unique challenges already faced by the region. Besieged by political instability, polarisation, and fragile institutions, Latin American democracies are on fragile ground. Together with systemic corruption, unstable governments, and poor digital literacy, this state of play has hindered the development of a comprehensive regulatory framework and delayed the birth of regional initiatives to tackle the misuse of AI. Indeed, AI-driven technology operates without stringent regulations in Latin America, enabling political actors to disseminate vast amounts of misinformation to the electorate with impunity.

As the last year has shown, AI has ushered in a new era of political campaigning, threatening the region’s tenuous democratic stability. Cooperation with the European Union, which is already a step ahead in regulation and good practices, is key to rethinking and protecting Latin America’s electoral processes and preventing the degradation of democratic spaces in the digital sphere.

Indeed, the EU has positioned itself as a global leader in AI regulation, emphasising ethical standards, data privacy, and human rights. For the EU to maintain its leadership and ensure global digital stability, it must extend these regulatory principles beyond its borders. By assisting Latin America in developing robust AI regulations, the EU can promote a cohesive global approach to AI governance, ensuring that ethical standards and security are adopted and maintained worldwide.

Alongside this, the EU has an acute interest in supporting the region’s democratic health. Democratic instability in Latin America has already resulted in increased migration, trade disruptions, and security threats that directly impact Europe, while it has strained ties with important EU partner countries. From an economic perspective, the EU is one of the largest investors in Latin America, with EU foreign direct investment stock in the region amounting to €680 billion as of 2022 (including the Caribbean). For example, Spain’s telecommunication giant Telefónica has significant operations in Brazil and other Latin American countries, where stable regulatory environments are crucial for ease of doing business. And once finalised, the EU-Mercosur trade agreement, will create one of the world’s largest free-trade areas, emphasising the importance of aligned regulatory standards for smooth economic relations.

To reduce the negative impacts of generative AI, ethical guidelines and regulatory frameworks have been adopted at the national level by countries and in multilateral forums such as the United Nations, the G7, and the OCDE, as well as the EU. These multilateral efforts intend to guide the ethical development of AI while safeguarding user rights, with an emphasis on data protection and reducing data biases in algorithms. At the same time, efforts are being made to welcome the invent of counter-technologies such as a blockchain that can mitigate and detect hoaxes and other threats posed by generative AI. Latin America can learn from these policies.

However, there are still many steps that should be taken for Latin America to achieve a joint approach on effective AI governance. Digital literacy is one of the main challenges, worsened by the region’s pronounced rural and gender gaps. This, along with political turmoil, has deteriorated the implementation and adsorption of regional initiatives to respond to the significant risks posed by AI to electoral processes in Latin America. Therefore, it is crucial for the region’s governments to take advantage of the renewed momentum of the strategic partnership with the EU, evidenced by last year’s digital alliance summit between the EU and Latin America and the Caribbean, which was a breeding ground for bilateral initiatives and promises of more structured cooperation. The UN remarks that Latin America has to embark on a cooperation journey to promote and implement AI ethical frameworks and best practices for platforms and electoral processes for the sake of democratic accountability. The EU-Latin America cooperation on AI governance can therefore use the EU’s AI Act as inspiration and foster regional advancements through organisations like Development Bank of Latin America and the Caribbean and the Inter-American Development Bank. These multilateral collaborations can help establish cohesive frameworks and standards across the region. This will also need to be tailored to the specific legal and regulatory contexts of individual Latin American countries, requiring each nation to adapt and integrate these guidelines into their local legislation to address unique challenges and priorities effectively.

Alongside this, the EU should use its strategic partnership with the region to strengthen capacity building, create joint research initiatives, and provide technical assistance. Europeans have compelling reasons to care about AI regulation in Latin America. By actively helping Latin America create better AI regulation, the EU can safeguard its strategic interests, enhance global security, and promote ethical standards worldwide. Building on its relationship with the region, the EU has many avenues of cooperation available with Latin American governments to ensure that AI is developed and used in a way that benefits both regions and contributes to a stable and secure global environment. With Venezuela, Brazil, Chile, and Uruguay still to face elections this year, there is no better time than now.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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