Ukrainian President Cites Clickbait Ranking in National Address
To highlight the progress that the Ukrainian Armed Forces have made under his command, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has cited a military index created by a clickbait military-themed site without any expert, academic, military or government endorsements.
This site, GlobalFirepower.com, ranked Ukraine’s military 29th globally in its “2018 Military Strength Ranking.” In his May 8th nationally televised address, President Poroshenko called Global Firepower an “independent, authoritative analytical center.” The site is virtually unheard of among respected military experts and academics we consulted, and is apparently run by an American blogger and web-entrepreneur named Daniel Puczek whose other online ventures include weddingdresscreator.com and other infotainment sites. GlobalFirepower.com is part of the MilitaryFactory.com network of sites and “Military Factory” is a trademark registered to Puczek.
Poroshenko’s tenuous description of Global Firepower as an “analytical center” was preceded by Ukraine’s largest English-language publication, the Kyiv Post, incorrectly calling Global Firepower “an independent U.S.-based think tank.”
In his May 8th address, delivered through a national televised speech as part of the First Minute of Peace Event, honoring the end of the second World War, President Poroshenko said the following about Global Firepower and its ranking of Ukraine’s military:
“Last month it became known that the Armed Forces of Ukraine, according to Global Firepower, an independent, authoritative, analytical center, entered the ten most powerful armies in Europe. (…) And I want to congratulate all Ukrainian military, Defense Minister Stepan Poltorak, Chief of the General Staff of Viktor Muzhenko, all Ukrainian soldiers and all Ukrainian people. We gained the eighth place and the first among non-NATO countries.”
Facing ceremonial lines of servicemen at the National Museum of the History of Ukraine in the Second World War, Poroshenko delivered a speech that likened Ukraine’s ongoing war with Russia in the Donbas to Ukraine’s role in the fight against Nazism. Poroshenko referenced Global Firepower to underline both Ukraine’s military evolution and its current enemy’s strength, noting that according to Global Firepower, “the Russian army is the second most powerful in the world after the United States. (…) It is ready to a full-scale invasion at any moment.”
Only a few weeks earlier in an address to graduates of the State Border Service Academy, Poroshenko referenced the same “analytical center” to illustrate the benefits of joining NATO for his country, saying that “Membership in this Defense Alliance [NATO] gives additional bonuses that would raise us even higher.”
Global Firepower has been referenced as an authority related to the current status of the Ukrainian military by both Ukraine’s Cabinet of Ministers (in 2017) and its Ministry of Defense (in 2017 and 2018).
But while Ukraine’s military progress and Russia’s threat to the country are hardly questionable, the reputation of Global Firepower is. It is not an “analytical center” as Poroshenko asserted, and it doesn’t claim to be. Global Firepower is a military-themed site that specifically claims that its content is “for historical and entertainment value.”
While the rankings and content on Global Firepower may be interesting, clearly the site is not authoritative enough to be quoted by a head of state, especially in the context that President Poroshenko referenced Ukraine’s ranking during a ceremony related to the second World War.
What is Global FirePower?
Global Firepower is often quoted in various media for its comparative rankings of military strength, but lacks the relative rigor of other databases. For example, more respected global military studies, such as the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) Military Balance and Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) databases, track various separate military parameters that include spending, armaments, arms transfers, and so on. Authoritative think tanks are cautious about charting comparative military strength and are open about their methodology, as is the case for example with Heritage Foundation’s “Index of U.S. Military Strength”.
Global Firepower is opaque about the “unique formula” it employs to establish its rankings, but states that the formula relies on “over 55 individual factors to determine a given nation’s PowerIndex (‘PwrIndx’) score.” Per Global Firepower, the formula “allows for smaller, more technologically-advanced, nations to compete with larger, lesser-developed, ones. Modifiers (in the form of bonuses and penalties) are added to further refine the list.” The site also presents a number of caveats regarding its formula; for instance, nuclear stockpiles are not taken into account, but recognized, and so on.
At the same time, the site gives little information about its sources, methodology, editorial board, and experts. However, there may not be many reasons for us to expect this transparency, as the site does not pretend that it is making authoritative, academic assessments to establish a definitive ranking of the world’s armed forces.
Global Firepower does provide a convenient if self-admittedly not reliable or representative comparison of the world’s militaries. However, what makes Global Firepower rankings a media darling is also on the list of reasons why at least some experts dismiss it (provided they even know it exists).
According to Dakota Wood, Senior Research Fellow, Defense Programs at The Heritage Foundation and editor of the Foundation’s “Index of U.S. Military Strength,” “scholars would accord Globalfirepower.com even less credibility than they do Wikipedia.” When we asked Michael Kofman, Global Fellow and Kennan Institute specializing in Security and Defense, about the site, he noted that “Nobody takes Global Firepower Index seriously.”
“It has little discernible methodology. Nor are such metrics really possible”, Michael Kofman of Kennan Institute told Bellingcat. According to Koffman, he never came across this Index in an academic setting, and it was “only raised by Ukrainians”.
Most experts reached for commentary admitted they didn’t know Global Firepower rankings was a thing. Tom Nichols, professor of National Security Affairs at U.S. Naval War College said he “never heard of it or ever seen anything about it”. Michael C Horowitz, professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania and author of The Diffusion of Military Power: Causes and Consequences for International Politics, said:
“The methodology used to derive the most powerful countries in the Global Firepower Index is opaque, so it is difficult to judge its validity. This looks to me like it is a well-meaning effort by someone to provide publicly available information on military forces around the world, monetized through ad revenue, but it is hard to say without knowing more about the methodology or who/what institution is behind the site.”
His opinion is shared by Dakota Wood, editor of Heritage Foundation’s “Index of U.S. Military Strength,” who said, “None of their material is accompanied by references and they certainly do not explain the algorithms used to arrive at their conclusions.”
Clickbaity and Misunderstood
Over the years, Global Firepower’s rankings have been cited in highly-trafficked articles in the Business Insider, as well as in news items on Forbes and Newsweek. None of these articles have claimed that the site represents an “analytical center,” as Poroshenko ascribed them. Business Insider quoted from Global Firepower rankings of world’s militaries in multiple articles, going back to 2013 and netting millions of views. For example, a 2013 article brought in over 5 million views, one from 2014 had over 2 million views, and one from this year has over 3 million views.
A Forbes piece quoting Global Firepower cites it merely as “Index.” Newsweek quoted their rankings in 2017 and on a number of occasions in 2018, referencing Global Firepower as a “military analytics site.”
Like in the case of Poroshenko, media outlets and governments outside of the United States have often misrepresented Global Firepower. For example, in June 2018, the Azerbaijani website Azernews.az called Global Firepower a “U.S.-based Global Firepower survey center”. In 2013, India’s Ministry of External affairs referenced an article quoting“a study” by Global Firepower.
This year, Russia’s state-owned RIA Novosti presented Global Firepower as “an international company” and prominently featured its rankings. On another occasion in 2018 RIA Novosti’s Ukrainian branch used Global Firepower rankings to cast doubt on Ukraine’s military progress without verifying the index itself.
In Ukraine, however, the country’s president endorsement of the rankings was predated by publications in the Kyiv Post, likely the most influential English-language newspaper in the country. The Kyiv Post presented Global Firepower as “an independent U.S.-based think tank” in a 2017 article, and again as “a U.S.-based independent defense think tank” in an April 2018 web item.
It’s not clear if the President’s description of Global Firepower was taken from the Kyiv Post articles, but the latter’s mischaracterization of their rankings stands out among both domestic and international descriptions of the site.