When I logged onto Joe Biden’s first-ever virtual town hall, I was greeted with one Illinois senator adjusting the angle of her webcam and another showing off an adorable (but screaming) baby in an oddly intimate video call before the former vice president even appeared onscreen. What was at first an awkwardly silent video conference evolved into a complete technical nightmare that resulted in Biden sounding as if he was screaming in TV static for the first few minutes of the event.
Friday night’s town hall wasn’t even supposed to take place online. Earlier this week, the last two major Democratic primary candidates, Biden and Bernie Sanders, were forced to cancel some campaign events because of the coronavirus pandemic. State officials across the country started banning large gatherings, like rallies, for fear of spreading the disease. Still, rallies remain an important part of any presidential campaign, and Biden’s team tried to mitigate the threat by hosting a public Zoom call for supporters to join and ask questions. Unfortunately, it completely missed the mark.
The Zoom call was plagued with technical problems from the beginning. First, it began over three hours late. Once Biden did start speaking, his staff had to restart his entire speech because there was no audio, fading his campaign logo in and back out again to signify that they were redoing the address. As he started reading off his prepared remarks again, Biden’s audio was suddenly painful to hear and impossible to understand, at least until they replaced whatever mic he was using with a smartphone.
This is part of the virtual town hall the Biden campaign wouldn't post— Zach Parkinson (@AZachParkinson) March 14, 2020
Garbled/cut out audio, blank screens, randomly going live to unsuspecting participants
A complete disaster pic.twitter.com/eLGgHyPm91
After his opening address was finished — as unintelligible as it was — staff opened the call up to questions. “Mr. Biden’s speech was garbled the entire time,” the first questioner said before being cut off.
A staffer responded saying, “We appreciate you bearing with our technical difficulties.” Then, they quickly clicked on to the next questioner. It was a few more seconds of dead air and another supporter who seemingly couldn’t unmute themselves before the town hall got its first real question. Toward the end of the call, Biden started moving offscreen while answering supporters. One time, his staff cut off the camera feed entirely because he walked so far out of frame. “Am I on camera?” Biden said once during the event.
Campaign staff also said that the call would be viewable over Facebook Live. That Facebook stream went up late and lasted around four minutes before going dark. Facebook viewers took note of the video and audio problems, with one commenting, “Joe, you need a new technical team. They’re making you look bad…”
Biden’s first-ever virtual town hall was a sorry first sign for the future of digital campaigning, something that will become ever more important as the presidential race heats up and coronavirus spreads across the country. As more and more of our lives move online over the next few weeks, political campaigns will need to come up with creative solutions to fill the gaps of face-to-face events.
Hopefully the Biden campaign and others can get it together before November, or at least until the pandemic fades.