Direct numerical simulations for fully developed channel flow, subjected to oscillatory spanwise wall motion, have been performed and analysed in an effort to illuminate the fundamental mechanisms responsible for the reduction in turbulent friction drag, observed to result from the spanwise wall motion. A range of statistical data are discussed, including second-moment budgets, joint-probability-density functions, enstrophy and energy-spectra maps. Structural features are also investigated by reference to the response of streak properties to the oscillatory forcing. The unsteady cross-flow straining is shown to cause major spanwise distortions in the streak near-wall structures, leading to a pronounced reduction in the wall-normal momentum exchange in the viscous sublayer, hence disrupting the turbulence contribution to the wall shear stress. The response of the streaks, in terms of their periodic reorientation in wall-parallel planes, the decline and recovery of their intensity during the cyclic actuation, and their wall-normal coherence, is shown to be closely correlated with the temporal variation of the shear-strain vector. Furthermore, a modulating ‘top-to-bottom’ effect, associated with large-scale outer-layer structures, is highlighted and deemed responsible for the observed reduction in the actuation efficiency as the Reynolds number is increased.