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Conservative group used tweet strategy against Coakley

Wellesley College researchers study ‘Twitter-bombs’

A TWITTER TARGET One tweet attacking the attorney general said: 'Catholics can practice medicine too! Tell AG Coakley today.' A TWITTER TARGET
One tweet attacking the attorney general said: "Catholics can practice medicine too! Tell AG Coakley today."
By Matt Viser
Globe Staff / May 4, 2010

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WASHINGTON — Attorney General Martha Coakley’s record was attacked in television ads, she was criticized during televised debates, and she took heat for apparently not realizing that Curt Schilling was a pitcher for the Boston Red Sox.

Apparently, the unsuccessful Democratic nominee for US Senate was also the subject of a stealth attack via Twitter.

A conservative group in Iowa was behind a viral attack on Coakley during her race against Republican Scott Brown, according to a new paper by Wellesley College researchers that analyzed Twitter activity during the special election.

The authors, Panagiotis Takis Metaxas and Eni Mustafaraj, examined more than 185,000 campaign-related tweets and “retweets’’ during the week leading up to the election.

In the course of the research, they found that one of the more active accounts was that tied to the American Future Fund, a conservative organization based in Des Moines that also ran television ads critical of Coakley. But because messages were done anonymously through a social networking site, it would have been difficult for any voter to tie the messages to the group.

The American Future Fund apparently set up nine accounts that sent 929 tweets over the course of about two hours — a method the study calls “Twitter-bomb.’’

Those messages would have reached about 60,000 people before Twitter realized it was spam and shut it down, according to the authors.

“It was a very cheap way of reaching about 60,000 people with limited resources and a limited amount of time,’’ Metaxas, associate professor of computer science at Wellesley College, said yesterday in an interview. “We’re going to see a lot more in the next election. I believe everybody will aggressively do everything they can with the social network.’’

The messages contained links to a website — coakleysaidit.com — as well as references to comments Coakley made about Catholics working in emergency rooms who object to providing emergency contraceptives for rape victims.

“AG Coakley thinks Catholics shouldn’t be in the ER, take action now!’’ read one message. “Catholics can practice medicine too! Tell AG Coakley today,’’ read another.

The messages referred to a debate over legislation that Brown had filed that would have allowed employees of Catholic hospital to refuse emergency contraceptives for rape victims if it conflicted with their religious beliefs.

The American Future Fund also took out a 30-second spot during the special election criticizing Coakley for her stance on taxes.

The ad was made by Larry McCarthy, who worked for Governor Mitt Romney’s 2008 presidential campaign and produced the 1988 “Willie Horton’’ ad that damaged Michael Dukakis’s presidential campaign that year.

Another consultant for the group, Ben Ginsberg, advised the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth group that hampered John F. Kerry’s presidential run in 2004. Ginsberg told the Globe in January that he was no longer affiliated with American Future Fund.

Because the organization is registered as a 501(c)(4) nonprofit, it does not have to reveal its contributors. A spokesman for the organization did not return messages yesterday seeking comment.

Matt Viser can be reached at maviser@globe.com.