Former Vice President Joe Biden’s first “virtual town hall” was a technical calamity as his campaign confronts the same challenges of unexpected remote work that millions of Americans are facing as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
His campaign’s plan was straightforward: Biden had canceled a Chicago rally due to the coronavirus outbreak, so he would invite Illinois residents to an online event Friday instead.
His campaign wanted those who attended to be able to ask him questions, so it added an extra layer of complication to the tried-and-true method of broadcasting onto Facebook Live. Those who signed up to participate could dial in on their phones or stream a video on Zoom, a business videoconferencing app. Then the Zoom feed would also be broadcast on Facebook Live to the entire social media world.
None of it went as planned.
Technical glitch after technical glitch showed the challenges facing campaigns as they look for ways to reach voters without being able to invite them to rallies or knock on their doors.
Shortly before midnight, the campaign sent out an email apologizing for the problems and pledging to do better next time. The email included a link to “a cleaned up version of the webinar with working audio.”
The start time of Friday’s “virtual town hall” was pushed back by two hours – and then it still started 15 minutes late. As those on Zoom waited to watch, the video alternated between confused-looking Democratic Sens. Tammy Duckworth and Dick Durbin of Illinois, as well as Vivek Murthy, the former surgeon general and a member of a committee advising Biden on how to handle campaigning amid a pandemic.
The event started with brief remarks from Durbin, who wasn’t visible to those watching on Zoom.
Then Biden came on and he was visible, but no one could hear him: His audio was so choppy that it could not be understood. At one point, he stopped and restarted, but the audio problem hadn’t been solved.
None of it was being broadcast on Facebook Live as intended, leaving some who had planned to watch it confused.
Murthy spoke briefly. Then the campaign went to questions from those who had clicked a “Raise Hand” button in Zoom or had pressed *9 on their phones.
The first person who was invited to ask a question instead offered a comment: “Mr. Biden’s speech was garbly the entire time.”
The campaign tried a second person – who had apparently dropped off.
By that point, Biden wasn’t yet live on Facebook, but his team had found a solution to the audio problem: He was holding a cell phone under his chin, and the audio feed was clear. He was able to deliver clear answers for the remaining 10 or so minutes of the event.
As the third questioner began, Biden asked, “Am I live?”
As the fourth started, he wondered, “Am I on camera?”
Finally, after that answer, Biden’s team had figured out its technical difficulties and started the broadcast on Facebook Live, almost immediately seeing the audience jump to 5,000.
Biden was in the middle of an answer on health care when the Facebook Live broadcast started. He finished that answer 20 seconds into the livestream, and then the campaign tried to take its next question from someone named Maureen.
She, too, had dropped off.
“Maureen?” a staffer asked as the audience waited for her question.
“Maureen, are you there?” Biden said.
About two minutes and 20 seconds into the Facebook Live video, Biden walked off camera. He was replaced by an “Illinois for Biden” sign as he answered a final question.
Four minutes and 31 seconds in, the Facebook Live stream ended, the Zoom feed shut off and the event was over.
Immediately afterward, Biden’s campaign emailed reporters apologizing for the technical difficulties, with a copy of the remarks he’d delivered at the beginning of the event that no one could hear.
“Thank you for your patience as we continue developing our virtual town halls and ensure voters have the opportunity to connect with Vice President Biden as he lays out his vision for America,” the email to reporters said.