Fears over foreign interference in elections across the free world have been all over the news in recent years.
So-called ‘bot farms’ in countries like Russia have been used to spread disinformation about elections and lies about the Covid-19 pandemic.
But people might be surprised to learn that saboteurs have tried to manipulate a consultation on controversial £100,000 plans for some some village allotments in Kent.
Bearsted Parish Council set up a poll to gauge locals’ views on plans to move the plots to make room for an expansion of a tennis club.
It was due to run from last Monday until Tuesday this week, but was taken down after two days after IP addresses from all over the world were used to oppose the scheme.
An email sent by Bearsted and Thurnham Tennis Club chairman Mike Laurenson last week said it had ‘hard evidence’ of the poll being abused by ‘one or more persistent individuals from the opposing side’.
He claimed they have ‘fraudulently manipulated their IP addresses in order to submit large numbers of votes in their favour’, KentOnline reports.
One of the rules of the poll was two votes per IP address – meaning two per household.
Mr Laurenson said results at the time were running at 90% in favour and 10% against.
But ‘all of a sudden’ at around 8pm on Monday ‘no’ votes started coming on from different IP addresses in Australia, Albania, Bosnia, Argentina, Russia, Costa Rica and many others.
An IP address is a computer’s unique number that identifies it online. It can be changed by unplugging and plugging back in your router.
It can also be changed using a VPN (virtual private network) app, which allows users to log into servers from across the globe.
The tennis club says it does not want to ‘point fingers’, but some on the other side feel they are being unfairly singled out.
Tony Grieve said: ‘We know of one plot holder who was away on Spain. She voted which she is quite entitled to do.
‘So that IP will have come from abroad but they have made these allegations, but they have not named names.’
The council’s proposals would see the number of plots increased from 27 to 48 as the site is moved.
Meanwhile the car park by Holy Cross Church would be expended, providing two new tennis courts paid for by the club.
Dementia-friendly children’s gardens and toilets would also be added to the new allotment site.
The Bearsted and Thurnham Society says it has concerns over the impact on the environment nearby as it would involve the destruction of a large grove of trees, but not all allotment holders are in agreement.
Holders fear they will end up losing their plots if the plan goes ahead and claim they haven’t been properly consulted.
Mr Grieve, who runs the ‘Save Bearsted Allotments’ Facebook group, said: ‘They are talking about it taking two or three years.
‘But, to be fair, some of the allotment holders are a similar age to me or even older. The council is saying it has got a waiting list of 20 people.
‘But from past experience, people quite often put themselves down for allotments, then change their mind when they realise the amount of work that goes into it.’
A spokesman for Bearsted Parish Council said: ‘We are still very much at the ideas stage. The idea around the new allotment is to offer more to the parish.
‘There would be a well-being garden. Everyone who is living with any sort of condition will be able to go somewhere where there is no traffic for some space.’
‘Over the past few years, a lack of allotment plots available to residents, inadequate parking near to Church Landway, a lack of public toilets and the requirement for more lighting in the area have been raised as some key issues that need addressing’.
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