At a military town hall meeting in Virginia on Tuesday, Donald Trump was asked to expand on his strategy for dealing with the Islamic State militant group.
"You have described at times different components of a strategy," the moderator — retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, a Trump supporter — asked, according to a transcript from CBS News' Sopan Deb. "Military, cyber, financial and ideological. Can you just expand on those four a little bit?"
Trump dove right into the second one, cyber.
Well, that's it. And you know cyber is becoming so big today. It's becoming something that a number of years ago, short number of years ago, wasn't even a word. And now the cyber is so big. And you know you look at what they're doing with the Internet, how they're taking and recruiting people through the Internet. And part of it is the psychology because so many people think they're winning. Any you know, there's a whole big thing. Even today's psychology — where CNN came out with a big poll. Their big poll came out today that Trump is winning. It's good psychology, you know. It's good psychology. I know that for a fact because people they didn't call me yesterday, they're calling me today. So that's the way life works, right?
And that's how we will beat the Islamic State at cyber.
There are a few nuggets in there worth parsing out. The first is the history of the word "cyber," which indeed wasn't even a word a few years ago — at least, not a century ago. In 2013, the technology blog Gizmodo dug into the history of the word, tracing it back to the 1940 book "Cybernetics." That book dealt with "what was at the time a pretty futuristic idea — that one day there would be a computer system that ran on feedback," Gizmodo's Annalee Newitz wrote.
The first usage of "cyber" in the New York Times came in the 1970s, in the context of national defense. In 1976, shortly before he lost his bid for election to the presidency, Gerald Ford approved the sale of two computers to Communist China. The machines were Control Data Corporation Cyber 172s, powerful machines that the government refused to sell to the Soviets on the basis that they could be used for both civilian and defense purposes. (The 172 included a memory bank capable of storing up to 131,000 60-bit words — nearly a full megabyte of storage.) The deal was recommended by then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
By the 1990s, "cyber" was a familiar term in pop culture, meaning, generally, "digital" or "Internet-related." (Newitz goes into more nuance on this, if you're curious.) That's the context in which it enters Trump's comments about the fight against the Islamic State, as a general word used to describe things on the Internet.
He doesn't really answer the question of battling the Islamic State, instead talking about "cyber" as a descriptor for social media. The term is generally seen as fairly archaic, relegated mostly to descriptions like in that first news article in the Times: the government's way of talking about how it can do battle online. That's the way Trump talked about it in his big foreign policy speech last month, as a tool of warfare.
But Tuesday, he used the term to transition into an example of how information can be used to convince people about things, citing a new poll from CNN-ORC that shows him in the lead. It's a poll carried out online ("cyber") and is an example of how information can persuade people (per Trump, to call him now that people know he's winning).
You can trace the thinking:
"How they're taking and recruiting people through the internet" — The link between the Internet and the Islamic State.
"And part of it is the psychology because so many people think they're winning." — The Islamic State gets recruits by presenting itself online as successful.
"And you know, there's a whole big thing." — When people think someone is winning, there's a psychology at play.
"Even today's psychology — where CNN came out with a big poll. Their big poll came out today that Trump is winning." — People think I am winning, for example.
He continued his thought after discussing that CNN poll, without adding much to answer Flynn's question.
"But cyber has been very, very important and it's becoming more and more important as you look and a lot of it does have to do with ideology and psychology and lots of other things," he said. "You know, we are in a different world today than we were in 20 years ago, 30 years ago."
On Monday, President Obama noted that the United States has "more capacity than anybody both offensively and defensively" in terms of cyberweapons but that he didn't want an "arms race" in that regard. "We’ve had problems of cyber intrusions from Russia and other countries in the past," he said at a brief news conference during his trip to Asia. "And we’re moving into a new era here where a number of countries have significant capacities." One example of online intrusions by Russia, of course, is an apparent effort to influence the outcome of the presidential election.
Speaking of cyber and the election, there's a new poll out. Maybe you've heard.