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Kentucky senator whose Twitter account ‘liked’ obscene tweets says he was hacked

FRANKFORT, March 24, -- Sen. Jason Howell, R-Murray, presents Senate Bill 150, a bill regarding the West Kentucky State Aid Funding for Emergencies fund, in the House Appropriations and Revenue Committee.
LRC Public Information
FRANKFORT, March 24, -- Sen. Jason Howell, R-Murray, presents Senate Bill 150, a bill regarding the West Kentucky State Aid Funding for Emergencies fund, in the House Appropriations and Revenue Committee.

Editor’s Note: This report relies in part on screenshots, emails and other documentation gathered in May 2021 by Kentucky Lantern reporter Liam Niemeyer when he was a reporter for WKMS Public Radio in Murray.

FRANKFORT — The sponsor of a bill mandating a complaint process for removing “obscene” materials from Kentucky’s public schools had, as recently as Monday morning, obscene images in his Twitter account history.

Sen. Jason Howell, R-Murray, says he was hacked, resulting in the appearance that he had “liked” tweets posted by pornography-related accounts.

Some sexually explicit photos have remained in Howell’s Twitter “likes” for almost two years, even after a reporter initially questioned him about them in 2021.

Angela Billings, the Senate Majority spokesperson, said Howell’s Twitter activity and Senate Bill 5, which opponents warned will lead to book banning, are “unrelated.”

“He didn’t have the savvy to, I don’t believe, completely understand what that (Twitter) history might have looked like. So it has nothing to do with his sponsorship of Senate Bill 5,” she said.

Billings said Howell probably didn’t understand how to “unlike” the obscene posts in his account history.

The Lantern tried to speak with Howell in the Capitol and also submitted questions to him via email. Walking up steps to the Senate chamber, Howell on March 2 told the Lantern that he “appreciated” that a reporter showed him the liked tweets on his account in 2021.

“Now I regret it,” Howell said before walking toward the Senate floor.

The Lantern requested interviews with Howell and Senate President Robert Stivers. Instead, Billings, the Senate Republicans’ communications director, and their general counsel, David Fleenor, spoke with the Lantern on March 3.

Howell released a statement Monday afternoon through Billings saying he was the victim of hacking “or subject to spam” and accusing the Lantern of “digging up” a two-year-old “inquiry.”

“Since the hack, there has been no indication of any additional questionable activity on my personal Twitter account. In May of 2021, I believed the hack was resolved,” he said.

Howell also said Senate Bill 5 was “needed legislation to protect our children” and questioned the “context and motivation” of the Lantern’s reporting in light of his sponsorship of the bill.

“It would be inappropriate for media outlets to take an editorial stance to try and undermine the legislative process. I remain committed to my constituents and the rest of the Commonwealth with the merits of Senate Bill 5 and will remain unfettered in my efforts,” Howell said.

Billings in the March 3 interview said Howell took measures to secure his account — such as changing his password and reporting the activity to Twitter — after the reporter’s inquiry in 2021.

“He took the measures to wrangle that back in and pulled in an IT guy in order to remedy the situation,” Billings said.

A May 2021 screenshot showing pornography-related accounts that Howell’s account was following. His account has since unfollowed the pornography-related accounts.
screenshot from Twitter account
A May 2021 screenshot showing pornography-related accounts that Howell’s account was following. His account has since unfollowed the pornography-related accounts.

Billings said she didn’t know who Howell specifically consulted in 2021, and Howell’s statement did not name the IT professional he worked with. The Lantern has asked for the name of the “IT guy” and any records of his work.

The “liked” tweets

Howell’s Twitter username was listed until recently on his legislative profile webpage, which also lists his biography and his legislative email address.

Howell, who has a private law practice in Murray, announced he was running in Kentucky’s 1st Senate District in December 2019 and won his Senate seat unopposed in November 2020.

Howell’s Twitter account is set to “protected,” meaning he has to invite followers to see his tweets, replies and likes. His account had 109 followers on Monday.

A Kentucky Lantern reporter began following Howell’s account before it became protected, meaning the reporter can see his Twitter history.

His other followers include Sen. Whitney Westerfield, R-Fruit Hill; Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, and Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles.

Most of the “likes” in Howell’s account concern local sports events and politics. But as of May 2021, at least 20 tweets in his “like” history — with dates of the tweets ranging from June 2020 to May 2021 — showed visuals of nudity, sex acts and references to sex.

At least 10 of those explicit or sexually suggestive tweets still appeared as “liked” in his account history as of the week of Feb. 27, 2023.

“Black men can use your wife however and whenever they want,” reads the caption of a “liked” Nov. 11, 2021 tweet showing a Black man and a white woman engaged in sexual intercourse.

Users on Twitter can like tweets posted by other people on the social media platform. “Liked” tweets appear from newest to oldest in a column on the right side of a user’s Twitter page. Unliking a tweet by clicking an icon will delete the tweet from the user’s account history.

In May 2021, a reporter for WKMS Public Radio in Murray — who now works for the Kentucky Lantern — followed a tip from someone who saw Howell’s account activity. At that time, the reporter documented the 20 instances of Howell’s account having “liked” an obscene tweet, coming from accounts whose usernames included @_Nudist and @Hotwife_Caps.

His account was also following sexually suggestive Twitter accounts at the time, such as @realcoupleporn.

One tweet showing a sex act was “liked” the same day another tweet was “liked” from the Kentucky Senate Majority’s official Twitter account. When asked about an obscene post being liked the same day as a post about politics, Billings said events in the legislature could have been “at the same time” as when a hacker was operating.

Some of the obscene tweets appearing in May 2021 in Howell’s history of “likes” no longer appeared in his account as of the week of Feb. 27. Twitter had suspended some of the accounts that had posted the obscene tweets, removing them and their activity from the platform altogether.

In May 2021, Howell’s account’s privacy settings were set to public, making the account’s tweets and likes available for anyone on Twitter to see. Howell did not have an account picture in May 2021 and no biography or introduction listed on his Twitter profile. His name was listed along with a location of Murray. Currently, his account features a picture of Howell in the Senate chambers.

The public radio reporter talked with Howell over the phone on May 21, 2021 about the Twitter account activity. The reporter directed Howell over the phone how to find and see the “likes” on his Twitter account, where at that time the most recent “liked” explicit tweet was dated May 11, 2021.

A screenshot from May 2021 showing an obscene tweet “liked” on the same day as another tweet from the Kentucky Senate Majority’s Twitter account on Howell’s account history. A black box has been added to obscure the obscene tweet.
Liam Niemeyer | Kentucky Lantern
A screenshot from May 2021 showing an obscene tweet “liked” on the same day as another tweet from the Kentucky Senate Majority’s Twitter account on Howell’s account history. A black box has been added to obscure the obscene tweet.

Howell was asked several times whether he had liked the obscene tweets himself. Howell did not directly answer the question, repeatedly telling the reporter that he “didn’t even know this stuff was on Twitter.”

“I’m going to show my gross ignorance here,” Howell said at the time. “I’ve had a Twitter account for years that I just had kind of followed politics stuff and kids stuff, but I didn’t even know stuff like this was on Twitter.”

In a follow-up email, Howell said his account was hacked and that he had taken efforts to fortify the account’s security. He later changed his privacy settings to “protected.”

Howell’s account has since unfollowed the porn-related Twitter accounts, and the most recent “liked” obscene tweet in the account’s history appeared in March 2021. The account’s last “liked” tweet about any topic was in early February and was about football.

WKMS Public Radio, which is affiliated with Murray State University, never broadcast or published the report about the obscenity on Howell’s social media.

Cybersecurity experts weigh in on hack

The Lantern talked with three computer science and cybersecurity experts about how hacked Twitter accounts generally behave and the likelihood of a hack causing the documented activity on Howell’s account.

Generally, these experts said it’s hard to say whether or not the activity from Howell’s account could be the result of a hack.

Douglas Schmidt, a professor of computer science at Vanderbilt University, said something akin to “FBI-level resources” would be needed to truly get an idea of what was happening with Howell’s account.

He said with the rise of sophisticated impersonation technology such as “deep fakes,” it can be difficult to determine what someone did or didn’t do.

“Anytime anybody does do something stupid and gets caught for it, they’ll just say, ‘Oh, well, I was hacked,’ right?” Schmidt said. “It’s very difficult nowadays to know whether anything is real or not.”

Matthew Wright, the chair of the Department of Computing Security at the Rochester Institute of Technology, said that social media accounts get hacked regularly but that he’s never heard of an attack in which the hacker made it appear someone had “liked” tweets.

“It definitely would be an unusual type of activity for a hacker to do this over a period of time and, you know, to be sufficiently stealthy,” Wright said. “There’s nothing that technically prevents it either.”

A Florida Republican lawmaker — whoproposed a resolution declaring porn a “public health crisis” — said it “was not my doing” when a publication reported that he had “liked” a tweet containing porn in 2017. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas also faced controversy when a “liked” pornographic tweet showed up in his account. Cruz subsequently said the incident was connected to a “staffing issue.”

Twitter hacks have been used to attack high-profile accounts or accounts with large followings in the past. VICE reported in 2016 that more than 2,500 accounts were broken into, in which the account’s profile pictures were changed to “scantily-clad women” and used to tweet links to adult dating sites. In 2021, dozens of public figures had their Twitter accounts hacked with the accounts posting tweets about a Bitcoin scam.

Senate Bill 5

Howell is the sponsor of 13 bills in this year’s legislative session including Senate Bill 5, which would create a complaint process for parents to challenge “materials, programs, or events” in school districts they consider “harmful to minors.” The bill has an emergency clause, meaning it would take effect immediately upon becoming law.

In the bill, “harmful to minors” is defined as:

  • Contain the exposure, in an obscene manner, of the unclothed or apparently unclothed human male or female genitals, pubic area, or buttocks or the female breast, or visual depictions of sexual acts or simulations of sexual acts, or explicit written descriptions of sexual acts 
  • Taken as a whole, appeal to the prurient interest in sex
  • Is patently offensive to prevailing standards regarding what is suitable for minors.

The bill mandates that elected school boards would have 30 days to hear appeals from parents who are dissatisfied with a school principal’s decision about a book, program or school event that the parent finds objectionable.

The Senate approved Senate Bill 5 on Feb. 23 by a 29-4 vote with three members not voting.

An expert in governmental ethics believes it’s “very hypocritical” of Howell to sponsor Senate Bill 5 while having a social media history of “liked” obscene tweets and following obscene Twitter accounts, even if such activity was unintentional.

“What then is striking is that you have this in your personal history,” said John Pelissero, a senior scholar at theMarkkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. “And now you’ve introduced legislation to protect children from the very things that you have previously promoted.”

He said even though Howell’s Twitter account is protected instead of public, having had until recently his Twitter username listed publicly on his legislative profile webpage is akin to inviting constituents to follow him as part of conducting the public’s business as an elected official.

“Your private life can very easily become entirely public, and how you act, how you behave, how you communicate in your private life, is going to shape the impression that the public has about how you are as a public official,” Pelissero said.

“Invisible line”

Senate Bill 5 sparked heated debate in a Senate committee and on the Senate floor last month. Howell praised the bill for striking a middle ground between those who think it goes too far and those who think it doesn’t go far enough.

“The great thing about this bill is it keeps us from deciding this up here as legislation,” he said, leaving the decisions instead to local school boards.

After the Senate approved the bill, Howell said such discussions are important because “everything gets vetted, everybody’s side gets told.”

“All of this discussion we’ve had today,” Howell said, “cycles around what’s appropriate and where we think that ever illusive and invisible line should lie.”

Liam covers government and policy in Kentucky and its impacts throughout the Commonwealth for the Kentucky Lantern. He most recently spent four years reporting award-winning stories for WKMS Public Radio in Murray.