An online “bot” was set up to submit thousands of fake responses to Edinburgh council’s consultation on whether to keep cycling lanes beyond the pandemic.
The council quickly established more than 18,000 responses to its consultation, all of which were against keeping the Spaces for People projects, were artificially generated.
Council leaders were furious when the bot’s responses were discovered and a member of the public was reported to the police for fraud.
However Police Scotland did not establish any criminality in the matter.
The council says the fake responses were separated from genuine ones in its consultation and its processes have been strengthened to identify any future cases.
As well as more than 17,000 genuine responses, the council carried out independent market research on Spaces for People to gauge public opinion.
The cycle lanes have had a mixed response
The council’s transport and environment convener Lesley Macinnes said: “We realised relatively early on that there was somebody who was putting in a number of highly negative responses and it quickly became apparent that it was some kind of fraudulent bot activity.
“It’s quite an unusual level of undermining of a consultation like this.
“It’s extremely disappointing that someone has taken this action, because it is about undermining that relationship between the council and the public and our attempt to genuinely understand what the public are thinking about this particular matter.”
Ms Macinnes said attempts to undermine public consultations are very rare in the UK and this case was “exceptional”.
A Police Scotland spokeswoman said: “We received an allegation of fraudulent responses being submitted as part of the Spaces for People consultation in Edinburgh on Tuesday May 18, 2021.
“Inquiries have been carried out and no criminality established, and we have liaised with the council on this matter.”